Opinion

The Great Debate

Can Obama ever close Guantanamo?

By Daphne Eviatar
November 21, 2013

Twelve years ago this month, President George W. Bush issued an order authorizing the U.S. military to detain non-U.S. citizen “international terrorists” indefinitely, and try some of them in military commissions. Within two months, those seized in the “war on terror” following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan were being sent to Guantanamo Bay.

A dozen years later, the United States is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, ending “the longest war in American history,” as President Barack Obama observed on Veteran’s Day. Yet the Guantanamo prison — now notorious as the site of torture and other abuses — remains open.

Obama pledged to close Guantanamo as one of his first official acts in office. Yet nearly six years into his presidency, the prison continues to hold 164 foreign captives. Only three have been convicted of a crime.

The plan to end major combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 means the government cannot put off closing down the Guantanamo prison any longer. Government officials and independent legal experts – including General Mark Martins, chief prosecutor of the military commissions at Guantanamo — have acknowledged that ending the war in Afghanistan raises serious questions about whether the United States retains the legal authority to continue to hold captives indefinitely.

Obama surely knows this, and to his credit, recently re-committed himself to following through on his 2009 pledge. He reiterated in May that Guantanamo should be closed, and subsequently appointed two new high-level envoys at the State and Defense Departments to help get the job done. He met with them earlier this month to pledge his support.

Now, it’s Congress’s turn. Congress is currently in the process of hashing out its annual defense authorization bill, which authorizes military spending on everything from weapons systems to health benefits. Those authorizations also determine key policies — including those governing the transfer of prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay.

The Senate’s current version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would dial back some of the most onerous restrictions Congress imposed to hamper the president’s ability to shutter the prison. These regulations have created significant obstacles to transferring prisoners back to their home countries — including those repeatedly cleared for transfer by government officials under both Bush and Obama.

Indeed, more than half the men remaining at GTMO have been cleared to leave. Though Obama could transfer many of them, he’d have to meet the stringent requirements Congress has imposed and that his administration has claimed hinder most transfers. As a result, the Defense Department now spends about $2.7 million per year to keep each of the 164 detainees at Guantanamo. By contrast, the government spends about $35,000 per year to keep an inmate in a high-security federal prison facility on U.S. soil.

The proposed Guantanamo provisions in the Senate NDAA would clarify the government’s authority to transfer detainees to foreign countries and replace a cumbersome certification and waiver regime with a more sensible standard designed to mitigate any risks of transfer. They would also finally allow some detainees to be transferred to the United States — temporarily, for emergency medical treatment, or for criminal prosecution in experienced federal courts.

But the House version of the NDAA carries forward the onerous transfer restrictions, and even expands them in some cases, including proposing a complete ban on transferring any detainees to Yemen. Now that the Senate has approved the Guantanamo provisions in its version of the bill, the competing versions will have to be reconciled in conference.

More than 500 people since September 11 have been convicted in U.S. federal courts on terrorism-related charges and imprisoned on U.S. soil. Not one has escaped.

There’s little question among national security experts that the Guantanamo prison is not only unnecessary but has become a liability. Former President George W. Bush; former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell; former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta; former National Security Adviser James Jones; General Charles C. Krulak (ret.), former Marine Corps commandant; General Joseph P. Hoar (ret.), former CENTCOM commander; former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Brigadier General Michael Lehnert (ret.), who set up the Guantanamo prison, have all supported closing it.

As Obama put it when he spoke at the National Defense University last spring, “GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law. Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at GTMO.”

He added: “There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened.”

It’s time for Congress to stop playing politics with U.S. national security and support closing Guantanamo. Passing the Senate version of the NDAA — and rejecting the House version — is an important first step.

 

PHOTO (TOP): A guard walks through a cellblock inside Camp V, a prison used to house detainees at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong

PHOTO (INSERT): A U.S. Military aircraft, which transported Ibrahim al Qosi, who completed his reduced, two-year sentence before his transfer, arrives in Khartoum, early morning July 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

of course Obama isn’t “nearly 6 years” in office;
he started his first term on 20 January 2009, after being elected in November (December, thechnically) 2008.
He is still 3 months short of 5 years in office.

picky, picky, picky.

Posted by BrianatReuters | Report as abusive
 

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I disagree, Daphne, about it being Congress’ turn to take action.
And if Congress did act, I don’t think that would be a good thing, based on their track record.
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No,
this is Obama’s time to act.
He can make the argument that the FY 2013 NDAA restrictions on Detainee transfers expired when the Act did, 30 September 2013.
He can then do whatever the heck he wants to do, until the Congress puts another Bill on his desk.

If he had a plan of action, this is the time to implement it.
If he doesn’t have a plan of action, he shoul;d consult with Cliff Sloan, the Gitmo Closure Czar at State. Special Envoy Sloan has the Dat-dazh-deet Plan in his hands, and could implement IF he had enough cash.

Let’s get this party started, before the Congress DOES act.
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Posted by BrianatReuters | Report as abusive
 

Obama could close Gitmo if he wanted. Obama could release most of the detainees tomorrow if he wanted. Why do people keep making excuses for him? Congress made it harder for him? Boo hoo. He’s hiding behind Congress to mask the fact that he broke his promise. If he ever closes Gitmo, he’ll do it right before he leaves office. Hold Obama accountable. He’s holding prisoners indefinitely without legal process. Hold him accountable for the CIA’s Somali proxy prison. We are losing the “War on Terror” because we continue to grow an environment that is conducive to producing enemies. Reverse course before it is too late.

Posted by LucasCorso | Report as abusive
 

Would it make everything easier to remove that area off the earth? 164 x 2.7 million per year? Who are the genius that created and then maintain this? @#$%^@#$%^%^&*#$%!!!!!!!

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive
 

Obama broke the law that requires congress permission to wage war against Libya.

But he needs Congress permission to release civilians?

Don’t think so. He would do it if he actually wanted to.

Posted by robr | Report as abusive
 

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