Friday, July 29, 2016

President Obama and the Broken Guantanamo Promise

With the Obama Administration finally releasing its drone strike casualty data (or a semblance thereof), it's a good time to take a look at another one of President Obama's signature first-term policies; the closure of the terrorist prison at Guantanamo in Cuba.

Let's start with this excerpt from a speech on national security that Barack Obama gave at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on May 21, 2009, just five months after "Hope and Change" took office:

"The second decision that I made was to order the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.  (Applause.)

For over seven years, we have detained hundreds of people at Guantanamo.  During that time, the system of military commissions that were in place at Guantanamo succeeded in convicting a grand total of three suspected terrorists.  Let me repeat that:  three convictions in over seven years.  Instead of bringing terrorists to justice, efforts at prosecution met setback after setback, cases lingered on, and in 2006 the Supreme Court invalidated the entire system.  Meanwhile, over 525 detainees were released from Guantanamo under not my administration, under the previous administration.  Let me repeat that:  Two-thirds of the detainees were released before I took office and ordered the closure of Guantanamo.

There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world.  Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law.  In fact, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law -- a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected.  Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause.  Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

So the record is clear:  Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security.  It is a rallying cry for our enemies.  It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries.  By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it.  That's why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign, and that is why I ordered it closed within one year...

We are currently in the process of reviewing each of the detainee cases at Guantanamo to determine the appropriate policy for dealing with them.  And as we do so, we are acutely aware that under the last administration, detainees were released and, in some cases, returned to the battlefield.  That's why we are doing away with the poorly planned, haphazard approach that let those detainees go in the past.  Instead we are treating these cases with the care and attention that the law requires and that our security demands."

In this speech, the newly minted President uses "Guantanamo" a total of 28 times.

Seven years later, what has happened?  SFA.  Here's what he had to say about Guantanamo in his State of the Union address on January 12, 2016:

"That's American strength. That's American leadership. And that kind of leadership depends on the power of our example. That’s why I will keep working to shut down the prison at Guantanamo. (Applause.) It is expensive, it is unnecessary, and it only serves as a recruitment brochure for our enemies. (Applause.) There’s a better way. (Applause.)"

That's it.  A single mention of Guantanamo and a very half-hearted, talking point mention at that.  

According to Close Guantanamo, since the prison opened on January 11, 2002, 779 prisoners have been held at the facility.  Of these, 690 have been released or transferred, nine have died, one has been transferred to the United States for trial and 79 are still being held with 29 of those being recommended for release.  Interestingly, of the 690 prisoners that have been released or transferred, 158 were released under the Obama Administration with there being a 15 month period between January 2011 and August 2013 in which no prisoners were released, a hiatus that was ended due to a prolonged hunger strike by a majority of the remaining prisoners, 45 of whom were force fed.  By December 2013, there were 164 men held at Guantanamo, the majority of which were held without charge.  Of the 79 remaining prisoners, 15 were cleared for release in 2009 by President Obama's Guantanamo Review Task Force yet, these men still languish in prison. 

Here is a list of the current prisoners, their country of origin and their current legal status:





The current president could always use an Executive Order to skittle past a reluctant Congress although that would likely lead to a series of unintended consequences for his other pet projects like gun control.  If, indeed, he is succeeded by the rather hawkish Hillary Clinton, although she has stated the following:

"“I support President Obama’s plan today to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and finally close the door on this chapter of our history. Over the years, Guantanamo has inspired more terrorists than it has imprisoned. It has not strengthened our national security; it has damaged it. That’s why I backed closing Guantanamo as a Senator, and when I ran for President in 2008, as did both then-Senator Obama and Senator McCain. As President Obama’s Secretary of State, I appointed a special envoy and worked with our friends and partners around the world to repatriate or resettle prisoners, with all appropriate monitoring and security. Closing Guantanamo would be a sign of strength and resolve. Congress should implement President Obama’s plan as quickly and responsibly as possible.”

...she will likely face the same issues that her political master has faced over his seven plus years in the seat of power and may take the path of least resistance and leave things at Guantanamo as they are since this is obviously not one of her signature campaign issues.  On the other hand, if Donald Trump takes the Oval Office, here's what he's likely to do with the Guantanamo issue:


So, from all appearances, it looks like the current administration has frittered away any chance that the very existence of Guantanamo will continue to negatively impact the hearts and minds of America's enemies around the globe.  It appears that the Guantanamo prison facility is here to stay.