As Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with advocates of continued wartime detention at Guantánamo Bay, 40 Democratic legislators have written to Barack Obama urging a last-ditch effort to shut down the detention center once and for all.
A letter sent to the White House on Wednesday by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and obtained by the Guardian, warns of “torture’s resurgence” under the Trump administration unless Obama fulfills his thwarted “laudable” pledge to close Guantánamo.
The letter comes on the 15th anniversary of the opening of the detention center.
“[W]ith only days before your term ends, we ask that you definitively close the site by rapidly pursuing any and all options within your existing authority to seek lawful disposition of all of the 55 remaining individuals languishing in the camp,” the 40 Democratic members of the caucus wrote.
“Mr Trump must be deprived of the use of Guantánamo Bay.”
Signatories to the letter include civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia, Iraq war veteran Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, senior justice committee member John Conyers of Michigan, and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, who is running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.
“Given the very real threat that the Trump administration will resume the barbaric forced interrogation practices utilized in the Bush era, we must act now to bring an end to this dark chapter in American history,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, another signatory, in a statement provided to the Guardian.
As an additional preventative measure against a return to torture, the caucus letter urges Obama to declassify additional sections of the landmark 2014 Senate intelligence committee investigation into CIA torture and to instruct officials throughout the security apparatus to read it. Obama, whose White House obstructed release of the report, in December agreed to preserve it as part of his presidential records, but doing so prevents its release for 12 years.
“[A] review of the Senate report and reaffirmation of torture’s illegality will empower federal employees to resist any possible effort by the president-elect to undermine torture’s prohibition,” the progressives’ letter contends.
The letter is agnostic about how Obama should close Guantánamo.
Legislative restrictions, which the caucus acknowledges, prevent Obama from transferring Guantánamo detainees to the US for any purpose. In its waning days in office, the White House hopes to transfer 18 detainees cleared by a multi-agency review panel as posing a minimal threat, a move that would leave 37 detainees at Guantánamo.
On Tuesday, outgoing defense secretary Ashton Carter said further transfers were unlikely, as there is insufficient time in the administration to provide a legally-mandated congressional notification for transfer.
The White House did not comment on the congressional letter and instead pointed to a defense of its Guantanamo record offered by spokesman Josh Earnest last week
Trump has embraced Guantánamo detentions despite international condemnation and persistent domestic outcry from human rights monitors. On the campaign trail, Trump said he was open to trying Americans in Guantánamo military tribunals and to torturing terrorism detainees, even “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway”. Both proposals are illegal.
Several of Trump’s cabinet nominees in relevant positions have expressed their support for retaining Guantánamo Bay as a detention facility, including attorney general pick Jeff Sessions, CIA pick Mike Pompeo and director of national intelligence pick Dan Coats. James Mattis, Trump’s choice for secretary of defense, opposes torture but has criticized Guantánamo Bay transfers and advocated for detaining terror suspects for the duration of an amorphous war with no foreseeable end.
Trump’s nominee to run the department of homeland security, John Kelly, oversaw Guantánamo Bay as head of US Southern Command and internally dissented from the Obama administration’s efforts to shutter it.
The caucus letter is supported by a dozen human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Credo, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Demand Progress and Open the Government.
“This letter from Congress is an important message at a crucial time. Guantánamo cannot be allowed to become a permanent institution of injustice,” said Margaret Huang, the US executive director of Amnesty International.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Disclosure: this reporter’s wife is an Amnesty International USA employee.