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How Guantanamo Bay Confounded, and Might Outlast, the Obama Administration

“I intend to close Guantanamo and I will follow through on that”. So promised President-elect Obama in November 2008, pledging to close the American-operated military prison within the first year of his Presidency. With less than a year remaining in President Obama’s second term, time looks like it is running out. With so many other foreign policy promises fulfilled, why has this one eluded him?

At the time of the 2008 election, the closure of Guantanamo Bay seemed inevitable. Both Obama and his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, supported the facilities’ closure. Even President George W. Bush conceded in his 2010 memoir Decision Points that the prison had become “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies”. The election was also the moment of most intense international scrutiny on the United States, with pressure from allies, the United Nations, and international organisations such as Amnesty International - who labelled the facility the “Gulag of our times”.

On the third day of his presidency, Obama issued Executive Order 13492 to “promptly close detention facilities at Guantanamo” saying that the decision was “consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice”. The Order, though, conceded that the President could not act unilaterally and that Congress would need to approve funds to effect the closure.

Within five months plans were in disarray. When the Administration attempted to find locations for prisoners to be transferred to the United States there was immediate revolt by members of Congress, Senators, and Governors. The Senate, in a vote of 90-6, comprehensively rejected the $80 million requested by the Obama Administration to fund the prisoner transfer. By January 2010, one year after his promise to close the facility, nearly 200 people remained incarcerated in Guantanamo.

Reporting in 2010, the Administration-appointed Guantanamo Review Task Force created further headaches. While it found that most of the then-detainees could either be released or allowed to face American prosecution, they deemed 48 to be “too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution”. In response the Administration attempted to acquire the Thomson Correctional Centre in Illinois to house former Guantanamo inmates but this was rebuffed by Illinios Senator Dick Durbin who ruled it as “not politically possible” and by Republican House Leader John Boehner, who pledged to spend “not one dime” on prisoner transfer.

With the two-year anniversary of his promise to close the facility fast approaching, the legislative branch again thwarted Obama. Despite repeated negotiations to remove the provision, the President relented and signed the National Defense Authorization Act which prevented the transfer of prisoners to the United States and even blocked returning them to other Middle Eastern countries. The Administration maintained that their “intensity” remained - but the political momentum was failing. In the 2012 election the issue was barely mentioned.

In March of this year President Obama told a crowd that the biggest regret of his presidency was not closing Guantanamo “on the first day”. The President believed that he misread the politics of the issue by assuming there was a “bipartisan consensus”, lamenting that “the politics got tough” and “the path of least resistance” was for Guantanamo to remain open.

Recently the Obama Administration has made a renewed effort to close the prison, though is still plagued by the problem of what to do with the 107 detainees who remain incarcerated as well as an obstructionist Congress. Once again the National Defense Authorization Act continued to constrain the actions of the executive branch by creating a statutory ban on transferring detainees to the United States. Though he signed the bill, Obama issued a signing statement indicating that such restrictions were not only “unwarranted and counterproductive” but potentially unconstitutional. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has hinted that the President may be prepared to act unilaterally to side-step Congress with the New York Times reporting that the Administration has formulated a proposal to reduce the number of prisoners at Guantanamo through transfers to foreign prisons and seeking plea deals. The Administration is also still faced with the issue of which states would be used to house former Guantanamo detainees. Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner has come out strongly against the proposal to imprison detainees in his state, arguing that any such move would “imperil the people of Colorado”.

Short of a political miracle, it looks like Guantanamo Bay might outlast the Obama Administration.

Mitchell Robertson has recently completed a Masters in US History at the University of Oxford and has previously tutored at the University of Melbourne.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Stephen Melkisethian (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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