The LWOT: Obama grudgingly signs Gitmo ban; shooter attacks Congresswoman, others in Arizona

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Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images
Virginie Montet/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Today marks the ninth anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The New America Foundation is hosting an event from 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm THIS AFTERNOON with Guantánamo chronicler Andy Worthington, former chief military commissions prosecutor Col. (ret.) Morris Davis, former detainee attorney Thomas Wilner and national security law expert Benjamin Wittes to discuss the future of the prison and its 173 remaining detainees (NAF). 

Obama grudgingly signs law containing Gitmo ban

President Barack Obama on Jan. 7 signed this year’s defense authorization bill, which contains language banning the use of Department of Defense funds to transfer Guantánamo detainees to the United States for imprisonment or trial and places restrictions on the conditions for transferring detainees to third countries (NYT, Washington Post, BBC, AP). Obama issued a "signing statement" with the bill expressing his intense displeasure with the language, saying that he would seek Congressional repeal of the ban, oppose any extension of the limits, and seek to "mitigate" the bill’s effects (WSJ, Reuters, CNN). According to the statement, the ban on funds for trials represents (White House): 

A dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and the circumstances of each case and our national security interests.  The prosecution of terrorists in Federal court is a powerful tool in our efforts to protect the Nation and must be among the options available to us.  Any attempt to deprive the executive branch of that tool undermines our Nation’s counterterrorism efforts and has the potential to harm our national security.

The statement also defended the administration’s procedures for releasing detainees to third countries, and said that new standards imposed by Congress:

Interfere with the authority of the executive branch to make important and consequential foreign policy and national security determinations regarding whether and under what circumstances such transfers should occur in the context of an ongoing armed conflict.

Yet despite the sharp rhetoric, the statement stops short of declaring the provisions unconstitutional. Carol Rosenberg has a round-up of opinions on the bill and Obama’s signing statement (Miami Herald).

Prosecution seeks life for Ghailani

Also last Friday, federal prosecutors in New York asked that Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, convicted of one count of conspiracy in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, receive life in prison for his crime (NYT, Bloomberg). Prosecutors cited previously unreleased evidence of Ghailani’s interactions with al Qaeda members as well as purchases of bomb components as part of their justification for the sentencing request. Defense attorneys, however, cited the harsh treatment that Ghailani allegedly received while in CIA custody as part of their plea for leniency, meaning Ghailani’s time in CIA secret prisons and Guantánamo will likely be an issue at his sentencing hearing, scheduled for January 25 (AP).

After reaching an unidentified settlement with the Australian government, former detainee Mamdouh Habib dropped his lawsuit alleging Australian complicity in his abuse while at Guantánamo, as well as at prisons in Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan (AFP). He will reportedly use the money to pursue lawsuits against the American and Egyptian governments (Sydney Morning Herald).

Arizona tragedy

A gunman opened fire Jan. 8 at a constituent meeting at a supermarket in Tucson Arizona, critically wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others and killing six, including Arizona’s top federal judge and a nine year-old girl born on September 11, 2001 (Washington Post, Washington Post, NYT, NYT). Congresswoman Giffords is reportedly "holding her own" despite a bullet passing directly through the left hemisphere of her brain, and doctors have removed part of her skull to relieve brain swelling (Washington Post, WSJ). Flags were flown at half-staff across the country yesterday, President Barack Obama and the Supreme Court observed a moment of silence in recognition of the tragedy. Political leaders from both parties expressed shock and determination in condemning the shootings, allegedly committed by 22 year-old Jared Lee Loughner (Salon, Washington Post).

Loughner waived bail and formally heard the charges against him in a brief court appearance Jan. 10, charges that include attempting to assassinate a member of congress and two counts of murder (Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, AJE, Guardian). Accounts from those who know Loughner describe a disturbed figure obsessed with Giffords, who withdrew from community college after complaints were filed against him and posted rambling videos on the Internet about his mistrust of the government, philosophy, mind control, and terrorism (NYT, Washington Post, MSNBC). Loughner is represented by a public defender who in the past represented "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and al Qaeda figure Zacarias Moussaoui. Loughner faces the death penalty if convicted (CNN).

Niger kidnapping ends in death

Armed men speaking Arabic, believed by the French and Malian governments to be members of or linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped two French nationals on Dec. 7 from a restaurant in Niamey, the capital of the African state of Niger (France 24, BBC). After a dramatic chase and clashes with Nigerien forces the kidnappers were confronted by French Special Forces – in Malian territory, according to French reports – who staged a dramatic but unsuccessful rescue attempt. French forces killed several kidnappers only to find the dead bodies of the hostages, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, afterwards, reportedly killed by their kidnappers (AFP, Guardian, NYT, CNN, Le Monde). The two were childhood friends, and Delory had arrived in Niamey just before the kidnapping to witness de Léocour’s wedding to a Nigerien woman, planned for next week.

French officials have grown increasingly concerned in the past year with the threat posed by AQIM, and have taken increasingly aggressive steps, including armed attacks on AQIM camps in July and September 2010, to counter it (France 24). Sarkozy expressed defiance in the aftermath of the failed rescue, saying, "we will not accept the diktat of terrorists" (Reuters, USA Today).

Trials and Tribulations

  • A federal judge has delayed until May 16 the trial of Chicago businessman Tawwahur Hussain Rana, accused of providing cover for Mumbai attack plotter David Coleman Headley (Bloomberg, AP). And a Boston man accused of giving $5,000 to failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad is being held in solitary confinement, despite the protests of his lawyer and recommendations of prosecutors (Reuters).
  • The Justice Department on Jan. 10 asked a federal court to reject a request from defense lawyers for Mohammed Osman Mahamud, arrested in November for trying to explode a fake bomb in Portland, that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stop talking publicly about the case (Reuters). 
  •  Despite denials from British officials, the Telegraph reports that last week’s reported elevation of the country’s threat level was due to intelligence of a planned al Qaeda attack on Britain’s airports and transportation hubs (Telegraph, WSJ). 
  •  Saudi Arabian officials have identified and given Interpol a list of 47 "very dangerous" terrorism suspects accused of plotting to set up cells and commit attacks inside the kingdom (AJE, Bloomberg). The Saudi Justice Ministry this weekend announced that since 2009 the kingdom has tried 442 terrorism cases, convicting 738 on terrorism charges (Asharq al-Awsat, Bloomberg). 
  •  The Basque terrorist group ETA announced a permanent ceasefire with the Spanish government in a video released Jan. 10 (DW, Telegraph, AP).
  • The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a motion with a Spanish court asking that the court subpoena the one-time commander at Gitmo’s prison, as well as several former high-ranking Bush administration lawyers, as part of an investigation into abuses committed at Gitmo and elsewhere (Guardian, CCR). 
  •  A controversial terrorism trial began for former CIA asset and anti-Fidel Castro militant (and alleged terrorist) Luis Posada Corrales in Houston – on charges of lying to federal authorities (NYT, Miami Herald, CNN).

Andrew Lebovich is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a doctoral candidate in African history at Columbia University. He is currently based in Senegal and has conducted field research in Niger and Mali.

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