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Obama Never Had a Plan to End What Guantánamo Represents

Seven years of indefinite detention and extrajudicial killings around the globe belie the president’s once-claimed intent to change the system.

Barack Obama, the new US president, was keeping his promise: 48 hours into his presidency and there he was, signing an executive order that called for closing down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year.

“This is me following through,” Obama said from the White House on January 22, 2009. It was his intent to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great,” and he was actually doing it, every ecstatic liberal posting the news on the Facebook wall of their skeptical leftist friend. The United States, the new young president declared, would “observe core standards of conduct not just when it’s easy but also when it’s hard.”

How refreshing it was, after two terms of waterboarding and the oratory torture of George W. Bush, to hear not just pretty words about American ideals that never were actually put into practice in a nation founded by human enslavement, but for those words to accompany in-real-life action. How disappointing, then, that the gratingly correct cynic was once more proven right: that even the seemingly tangible gestures – ending the empire, no, but improving its public relations in a way that gave real, actual hope to a few hundred imprisoned men who lacked it – proved to be little more than yet another photo op.

It has been seven years now since Obama signed the order closing a military prison that is still very much open 14 years after it took in its first inmates on January 11, 2002. “We do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva Conventions,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the time. Initially, the base was designed to hold 100 prisoners; it would go on to hold nearly 800. (White House officials “had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent,” a former State Department official, Lawrence Wilkerson, would reveal eight years later).

The blame for Obama’s failure to follow through on one of his first acts in office and close this most reprehensible of prisons, the president would say, lies not with him but with Congress, whose bills preventing Guantanamo’s closure he continues to sign. The Republicans in the legislative branch stubbornly insist on keeping the prison open, seeing it not at odds with the country’s core values, but as an obscene, extended middle finger-like expression of those values to the rest of the world.

And both the president and his critics, in their own ways are right. the squabbling between the executive and legislative branches only obscures a more salient truth that both would like to avoid for purposes of keeping their respective bases placated: that while there’s disagreement on one specific facility, there’s broad agreement on the policy.

All along, Obama never truly planned to close Guantanamo; he merely wanted to move it. “Guantanamo North” is the term the media uses to describe relocating 114 men from Cuba to a high-security prison in the United States itself. Of these, the Obama administration announced in 2010 that 46 will never be charged with a crime, much less tried for one, either deemed too dangerous to release or the evidence against them too flimsy or tainted by torture to hold up even in a military show trial.

In February 2009, a month after his speech on Guantanamo and due process, Obama’s administration asserted the same argument as the Bush administration with respect to yet another legal black hole, this one at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The detainees there, the administration asserted – the population nearly tripled to 1,700 under Obama – had no right to habeas corpus, meaning the right to protest their detention. Too foreign, they argued (rights endowed by the Creator extended only to those born in the United States of America) and too out of sight for anyone to pay them much mind, preventing another PR fiasco like the one 145 kilometers from Florida.

But any detainee could prove to be a headache, ending up as the subject of an online petition or trending hashtag, as the US tacitly acknowledged when it handed the problem of Bagram over to the Afghan government at the end of 2014. Even better than stashing a suspected militant away in a foreign dungeon is preventing them from ever being detained in the first place. That can be accomplished by killing them.

It cannot be proven that this is US policy, but statistics suggest that it is. Since taking office, Obama has dramatically increased the US’s reliance on extrajudicial assassinations. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 1,927 people have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone – with no less than 62 of the dead being children. Under Bush, 404 people in Pakistan were remotely executed, at a minimum.

Obama has also expanded the battlefield and the eligibility for being killed. In Yemen, a US drone strike took out US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of (but never charged with) propagandizing for al-Qaida. Another strike there took out his 16-year-old son. According to The New York Times, each such attack is personally approved by the president at a White House meeting that takes place every Tuesday.

“How is assassinating a suspected terrorist – and anyone unfortunate enough to be in his general vicinity – with a drone missile morally or legally different from waterboarding a confessed terrorist at Guantanamo Bay?” asked the neoconservative author Victor Davis Hanson in a 2014 column for National Review. That, alas, is the world we now inhabit in the final full year of Obama’s term in office: the people – safely, for the time, removed from the levers of power – who helped kill well over 100,000 people in Iraq with an unjust war of aggression are now capable of making a good, humanitarian and self-serving point: “At least the waterboarded suspect survives the ordeal.”

Far from altering course, Obama’s legacy will be his institutionalizing the national security approach of his predecessor, albeit those of his second term, normalizing that which leading members of his Democratic Party once cast as an obscene break with an idealized past. His biggest change has been replacing boots on the ground with drones on the sky, in keeping with the establishment consensus following the disaster that was the last US-led invasion. That has resulted in less men being tortured and detained at Guantanamo, to be sure, but only because they, their children and any “military-age” bystanders are now dead.

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