This week, President Obama renewed his call, made almost half a decade ago, to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Calling the prison “against American interests,” the President said it had become a “recruitment tool for terrorists.” He is planning to bring the issue back to Congress, which spiked the idea during his first term. Will the prison be closed this time?
President Obama is raising the issue right now because of a growing crisis. About a hundred detainees are currently on hunger strike, the largest in its history. In response, doctors at the prison have resorted to force-feeding some inmates, while others weaken and near death. The Pentagon recently ordered more doctors to the facility so that all of the striking inmates can be force-fed to keep them alive.
It’s a safe bet Congress will again step in the way of directly closing the prison. Representatives and Senators routinely call for the military detainment of captured terrorist suspects on the ground that, they say, are enemy combatants and must be treated as such. House Republicans passed a bill in 2010 preventing the President from transferring Guantanamo detainees to civilian courts for trial; Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain routinely call for continued military detention for the Guantanamo prisoners.
But, even if Congress doesn’t allow the prison to be closed outright — there are steps President Obama can take to at least mitigate some of the worst abuses there.
One step, articulated in a letter by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Diane Feinstein, is to transfer the eighty-six prisoners — who have been cleared for release — to a civilian facility. These eighty-six have been proven to have committed no real crime, and some have been waiting for their release for years. One, Mohammed Odaini, was captured at the age of seventeen. In 2010, a federal judge ordered him released, citing “overwhelming evidence” he had been held illegally for more than eight years.
Odaini is an exception: Most innocent detainees have not been released. It took a judge’s order to get him free. There are about ninety Yemenis in Guantanamo, the largest single ethnic group of prisoners. Yet,of the twenty or so who have been cleared, none have been sent back to Yemen because the President halted them. Ostensibly, this is because of Yemen’s deteriorating security situation, but that’s hardly a reason to keep innocent people in prison. The reality is there is no real reason to keep innocent people in prison and it is increasingly difficult to justify such patently illegal detainment.
Freeing innocent prisoners is an important step President Obama could take right now to alleviate some of the worst abuse. It would also restore the credibility he lost after abandoning the Guantanamo issue years ago.
Another step is to appoint a new high-level envoy to manage the eventual closure of the base. Ambassador Daniel Fried was first given the job during Obama’s first term; in January, the State Department reassigned him to other duties, leaving the job empty. Appointing a high-level official whose sole duty it is to manage Guantanamo’s closure — from working with Congress to finding the administrative and executive loopholes to allow its closing — would concretely demonstrate Obama’s seriousness.
But, looming behind all of these piecemeal decisions is an important underlying factor: the war on terrorism. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) — passed days after the September 11th attacks — establishes an armed conflict against al Qaeda. It is this technically ongoing armed conflict that two Presidents and dozens of elected officials have used to justify extraordinary decisions to imprison innocent people and prevent access to civilian trials.
Ending the AUMF — and with it the “war” part of the war on terror — would undermine the rhetorical and legal maneuvering used to justify keeping Guantanamo open.
There are clear downsides. The forty-six prisoners who, the administration claims, cannot be tried, but nevertheless pose a severe danger, must be dealt with somehow. And the remaining prisoners need to be either tried, or — under the terms of an armed conflict that ended — released.
But doing so would, again, require Congress to participate in the closure of Guantanamo. And in the current political climate, that just doesn’t seem likely.
Still, it is appropriate for President Obama to keep bringing the issue back to the Hill — again and again, if need be. The President was correct when he said the prison is a recruiting tool for terrorists. Across the world, the continued injustice at Guantanamo is fodder for terrorist movements looking to entice young men to take up violence. However quixotic the quest to close Guantanamo may be, it is an incredibly important one.
Until the day comes that the prison is finally shuttered for good though, the President can still push the issue. Releasing the cleared prisoners, reappointing the envoy responsible for closure, and pushing for new administrative measures for handling the forty-six “untrialable” prisoners, would go a long way toward ameliorating the worst abuses that have taken place there.
But it still won’t solve the basic problem. Congress needs to move on this, too — without Congress revising the many legislative measures that keep the prison open, there is only so much even the President can do.