The overwhelming odds against shuttering the Guantánamo Bay detention facility before Barack Obama leaves office have left his allies viewing his latest closure plan as an epitaph for an effort they consider marked by unforced errors.
(Article by Spencer Ackerman)
Ever since he took office, Obama has watched the collapse of political consensus on closing Guantánamo Bay – a move endorsed by his predecessor, George W Bush, and his 2008 opponent John McCain. Instead, a wall of conservative opposition formed which Obama has shown no ability to penetrate. Seven years of entreaties, reiterated the president on Tuesday, have yielded only emboldened resistance to wait him out.
Instead, Obama gave a speech on 21 May 2009 at the National Archives that treated “closing Guantánamo” with strict literalism.
Obama used all of the rhetoric against Guantánamo that the groups had compiled during the Bush years. Guantánamo had “set back [America’s] moral authority” and was a “rallying cry for our enemies”. Some 240 detainees were in a “legal limbo”. The military commissions were less efficient than civilian courts in dispensing justice. Guantánamo, all told, was “a mess”.
Yet with the exception of torture, Obama chose to retain every objectionable practice at Guantánamo. While he said he preferred to try detainees in civilian courts, he defended the military commissions, and downplayed his 2006 Senate vote against them, calling them an “appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war”.
Most importantly, Obama conceded a role for indefinite detention – this time in the United States. He called them “a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States”.
Over the years, administration aides would speak of them as a detail, an “irreducible minimum”, those left after men who posed a marginal threat were transferred out. Like Obama, they said this was a “responsible” approach to closing Guantánamo.
The human rights groups so encouraged by Obama’s pledge to close Guantánamo smelled a bait-and-switch. Even if Obama got what he wanted, he wouldn’t be closing the facility in any substantive fashion. The indefinite detentions without charge, the military commissions, everything, save torture, that made Guantanamo internationally infamous would live on, except this time closer to home.
Bitter with disappointment, the campaigners and lawyers came to call the prison in Thomson, Illinois, where Obama wanted to hold the residual Guantánamo population “Gitmo North”. Yet many would continue to mute their criticisms of Obama, whom they felt had his heart in the right place and was preferable to Republicans like the current Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who saw no problem with Guantánamo.
Interviews over the past seven years with numerous administration officials who worked on detention issues indicate that they did not seriously consider an alternative approach, both because they feared letting dangerous people free and because they feared the political consequences of doing so.
They held with that approach even as civil libertarians warned them, publicly and in closed-door meetings at the White House and Justice Department, that circumscribing their focus from the start would lead them inexorably on to the terrain favored by the plan’s opponents. If the US was going to do the same things somewhere else, what was the point of clearing out Guantánamo?
As Obama prepared to give his National Archives speech, intended to rally support for his Guantánamo approach, legislative opposition began to coalesce – not just from Obama’s enemies, but from his friends.
On 4 May, the chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee, liberal Democrat David Obey, stripped $80m devoted to the Guantánamo closure out of a wartime funding bill destined to pass. Obey, in a preview of what was in store from Capitol Hill for years, savaged Obama’s closure plan as pointlessly vague.