Obama misses a deadline on Guantanamo
Just because a president orders something done, that don’t make it happen.
A year after President Barack Obama ordered the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the facility is still open and holding 196 terrorism suspects the United States has captured.
The president had barely finished celebrating his inauguration when he signed an order Jan. 22, 2009, directing the Guantanamo prison be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”
Any inmates still at the prison at the time of closure would be “returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
The timeline on Guantanamo closure began to slip soon after Obama signed the order as good intentions came up against hard realities.
Many U.S. allies who wanted the prison closed declined to take more than a handful of inmates apiece — particularly because the United States was not taking any. Returning prisoners to countries where they might be tortured was unacceptable.
Reports of former Guantanamo inmates taking up arms against U.S. forces weakened political support for the closure. And the Obama administration came under sharp attack from those who opposed the idea of having the prisoners face civilian rather than military justice.
Although it became clear the timetable for closing Guantanamo was unlikely to be met, the White House continued to insist even into August that the administration was committed to the date.
“The president intends to maintain and keep his commitment to close Guantanamo in a year,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Aug. 13.
With the closure deadline looming earlier this month, however, Gibbs was not offering a new date for shutting Guantanamo.
While the White House was silent on the passage of the unmet deadline, it provoked reaction from groups on both sides of the debate.
Kirk Lippold, the former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked by suicide bombers during a stop in Yemen in 2000, urged Obama to reconsider his closure order.
“The president should heed the advice of security experts and recognize that closing Gitmo would be costly, unnecessary and represent an unjustifiable risk to our national security,” said Lippold, a fellow at Military Families United.
A group of nearly three dozen retired flag and general officers from Human Rights First urged Obama to move ahead with closing Guantanamo.
Activists from Witness Against Torture staged protests on Thursday at the Capitol. Twenty-eight were arrested for demonstrating on the steps and another 14 were detained inside in the Rotunda.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Friday “an important deadline was missed” with the failure to close Guantanamo.
Recognizing the obstacles the administration has faced in closing the prison, he urged that the White House “not give in to a sense of inertia and that the prison be shut down as soon as possible.”
The administration has been moving slowly ahead on closure. It announced in mid-December that it would buy a state prison in Illinois and harden it to house dozens of terrorism suspects from Guantanamo.
An Obama administration official said Friday a task force headed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has recommended that about 50 Guantanamo prisoners face indefinite detention.
Another 35 or so should be prosecuted in criminal or military courts and 110 detainees should be released, the official said. The recommendations are being reviewed by the National Security Council.
The ACLU’s Romero questioned the plan to continue detaining prisoners without trial.
“Just as important as closing the prison quickly is closing it right, and that means putting an end to the illegal policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial,” he said.
“While the administration should transfer prisoners to the U.S. for federal court trials, it should not create a ‘Gitmo North’ by bringing them to facilities in the U.S. or anywhere else to be illegally held without due process,” Romero said.
“This practice was wrong in Cuba and would remain so here, reducing the closure of Guantanamo to a symbolic gesture.”
Photo credit: Reuters/Deborah Gembara (Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay in August 2009); Reuters/Larry Downing (Obama signs order to close Guantanamo prison Jan. 22, 2009)