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'Mr. President, what should I tell cleared prisoners in Guantanamo?'

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014.

Story highlights

  • An attorney for 14 men in Guantanamo Bay says Obama's broken promises have weighed heavily on all the detainees
  • Obama said -- again -- that this is the year he intends to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay
  • 50 percent of Guantanamo Bay inmates are told: "You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go," Clive Stafford Smith says

President Obama delivered his State of the Union address and said -- again -- that this is the year he intends to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. As President, he has promised this before, first in his inaugural address in January 2009 and then periodically reiterated over the years.

As I write this, I am en route to the prison that Amnesty International once dubbed the "Guantanamo Gulag."

One might quibble over the term, but the profile of the place is extraordinary. When I first went there in 2004, I expected to find "the worst of the worst" terrorists in the world, as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had promised.

Instead, I was hard-pressed to find people who were America's enemies. The Pentagon has effectively conceded this -- 624 men have long since been set free, and 77 of the remaining 155 men have been cleared for release for at least four years, some for much longer. The majority of my clients have been cleared for release by the Obama administration's 2009 Task Force, which requires unanimous agreement by no fewer than 6 federal agencies including the FBI, the CIA, and the Departments of Defense and State.

Clive Stafford Smith

There can be no other prison in the world where 50 percent of the inmates are told: "You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go."

I hope to visit five of my remaining clients, although some may not come to the meeting. All are depressed and (for the questionable privilege of seeing me) had to endure for a time what the military dubbed a "scrotum search" -- an intentionally humiliating exploration of the genital area, which is intended to deter prisoners from coming to a legal visit to complain about the conditions.

    One person who will come out is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident there. Shaker does not like what he had to endure, but he told me recently that the procedure was ultimately more humiliating for the soldiers who must carry out such benighted orders. After all, who joined the proud U.S. military in order to become a "Scrotum Searcher, First Class?"

    He has been cleared since 2007, and hopes that it will not be too long before he can return to London, finally, to meet his youngest son Faris, who was born on the day Shaker arrived at Guantanamo Bay: Valentine's Day 2002.

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    Shaker is depressed. The President's broken promises have weighed heavily on all the detainees.

    As anyone can understand, it is easier to endure the certainty of abuse than to oscillate between hope and despair.

    The President is correct when he argues that Guantanamo is a recruiting sergeant for extremism. He is right to say that America loses credibility, and inspires disdain, when we fail to adhere to our principles. The President is also justified when he blames the Republicans for undermining his pledge to erase the blot of Guantanamo from the reputation of this country.

    However, President Obama is arguably the most powerful person on the planet and his team should not promote the myth that the cleared prisoners cannot be set free -- Shaker could join his wife and four children in London tomorrow; those of us who have worked on the issue for 12 years can help ensure the smooth repatriation of others to their own homes and families.

    Equally to the point, the most powerful man on Earth could tell the military to stop humiliating prisoners who want to talk to their lawyers, and to end the violent and torturous practice of force-feeding those who peacefully protest their indefinite detention by hunger-striking.

    Over a 30-year career, I have visited most of the major prisons across the U.S. South, institutions that house death row or a maximum security unit, and none treats the prisoners as badly as Shaker suffers in Guantanamo Bay.

    The President could also advise me what I am meant to say next week, when my clients inevitably ask me -- as they always do -- why they are still being held despite the multiple findings that they pose no threat and can be transferred out of the hell they are living daily.