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Gitmo: A Fight Obama Never Had the Stomach For

Signs point to Gitmo remaining open for the duration of Obama’s second term, says Sam Sacks.

JTF Guard Force Troopers transport a detainee to the detainee hospital located adjacent to Camp Four, Guantanamo Bay, Dec. 27, 2007. (Photo: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Billings)

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For more than four years now, President Obama made it look like he’s trying to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

He campaigned on a promise to close Gitmo, saying in August of 2007, “As President, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists.”
And on January 22, 2009, in one of his first actions as president, he signed an executive order calling for the shuttering of Gitmo within one year. He said, “This is me following through on not just a commitment I made during the campaign, but I think an understanding that dates back to our founding fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct, not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”
The president then created a special envoy post in early 2009 dedicated exclusively to closing down Gitmo. Daniel Fried was selected to the position, and he spent the next year traveling around the world finding willing partners to accept current detainees at Gitmo who would be released once the prison closes.
When it came to closing Gitmo, the ball was moving forward.
But then, the president crashed headfirst into the post-9/11 political reality in America – and in particular, in Congress.
Right off the bat, in May of 2009, the Senate blocked $80 million requested by the president to close Gitmo. It was a 90-6 vote, with nearly all the Democrats and every single Republican joining together to sabotage the president’s efforts to close Gitmo.
Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota perfectly illustrated the fear that still resided in the Senate when it comes to confronting terrorism. “The American people don’t want these men walking the streets of America’s neighborhoods,” he said, defending his vote. “The American people don’t want these detainees held at a military base or federal prison in their backyard, either.”
Resorting to the NIMBY defense, Thune and other senators thought of Gitmo detainees as volatile nuclear reactors who, if released, would cause mass devastation to communities across America.
In reality, most Gitmo detainees were completely innocent. Young men picked up on the Afghan battlefields because they were wearing the wrong watch or had a grudge with local warlords.
By the time President Obama took office in 2009, the vast majority of Gitmo detainees – more than 500 – had already been released. Five had died at the facility. And only one at the facility had actually been convicted of any crime before a military commission.
They were not walking menaces. And besides, speaking directly to Senator Thune’s point, there are already well over 300 individuals currently in prisons in the United States facing terrorist charges, and not a single community is in danger as a result of these nearby incarcerations.
But the Senate had spoken, and the president’s fight to close Gitmo would be more difficult than he likely imagined. But rather than doubling down on his efforts to remove this scar from our national moral character, he retreated.
It’s a common theme with this president. He just doesn’t seem willing to fight.
So, in July of 2009, the president issued a six-month extension to his pledge to close Gitmo within one year. And at the end of 2009, on December 16, he made one more effort to close Gitmo. He ordered his attorney general and defense secretary to buy a state prison in Illinois for $350 million to replace Gitmo.
But a few months later, the House Armed Services Committee, headed up by Democrats, blocked those funds, again placing a giant roadblock in front of the president’s plans to close Gitmo.
At this point, the lack of fight on the part of the Obama administration was becoming apparent. As the New York Times reported in June of 2010: “‘There is a lot of inertia’ against closing the prison, ‘and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,’ said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan. He added that ‘the odds are that it will still be open’ by the next presidential inauguration.”
With little pressure coming from the White House, Congressional Democrats decided it’s not worth sticking their necks out to help close Gitmo, either. In one of their final moves as the majority in the House, Democrats passed a year-end spending bill in December of 2010 that again blocked funding to transfer Gitmo detainees. It also blocked detainees from being transferred to the United States and to a slew of other nations.
A month later, Republicans would take control of the House of Representatives, and President Obama’s best chance of closing Gitmo in those first two years of his administration would be completely lost.
Over the next two years, Congress would pass more spending bills that block closure of Gitmo. Each time, the president expressed his disappointment but ultimately signed these bills into law.
Gitmo would remain open his entire first term. And as Levin predicted in June 2010, Gitmo remained open for the next presidential inauguration, too.
Currently, there are still 166 detainees at Gitmo – 87 of whom are approved for release but are barred from being released. Four detainees have died at the facility since President Obama took office. And currently, five Gitmo detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are facing a military trial at the facility that’s fraught with questions about torture and frequently interrupted by a “censor button” that cuts off audio and video of the trial to reporters and the media. Gitmo remains a moral black-eye on the United States, and a terrorist recruiting tool abroad.
Which brings us to today’s news.
The promise made on the campaign trail to close Gitmo has not been met. The one-year deadline imposed in 2009 to close Gitmo came and went. But what happened to that special envoy, Fried, specifically assigned to closing Gitmo created at the start of the president’s first term?
This week, we learned that Fried was reassigned to do work for the State Department on Iran and Syria. His special envoy post devoted to closing Gitmo will not be filled. It will disappear, and its vacancy will be more confirmation that President Obama never had the stomach for this fight to begin with.
Yes, much of the blame for Gitmo staying open rests squarely on Congress and not on the president. After all, had Congress consented with the president’s requests for funding to transfer detainees to Illinois, Gitmo would be an empty shell today.
But, as we’ve seen with the public option, cap-and-trade, the DISCLOSE Act, the Bush tax cuts, labor struggles in Wisconsin, you name it: when the going gets tough, the president gets going.
He had numerous opportunities to fight Congress on this issue, but he remained silent. He was barred from using Department of Defense funds to close the facility, but he could have used US courts to bring charges against Gitmo suspects and then used Department of Justice funds to try them in a fair and open trial in the United States. But he didn’t. He rolled over to the fearful NIMBY arguments and embraced military tribunals.
Perhaps he was worried that a prolonged battle over Gitmo would derail his domestic agenda. He may have been right.
But heading into a second term, Gitmo is no longer a priority like it was in the president’s first term. He’s now accepted defeat.
As he implied in his second inaugural, he’s content with polishing his progressive legacy through more civil rights victories like the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, by focusing on marriage equality, equal pay for equal work for women and immigration reform, all of which may be regarded in time as historic victories. But in a nation gripped by economic calamity and never-ending wars, the president’s focus is, arguably, misguided.
After Fried’s departure, a spokesperson for his office told The New York Times, “We remain committed to closing Guantánamo and doing so in a responsible fashion.”
Excuse me if I follow up on Senator Levin’s prediction from two years ago and say that Gitmo will likely remain open for the next inauguration in 2016.
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