Four Obama Policies That Help Keep Guantanamo Open

In this March 29, 2010 photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, photographed through one-way glass, a Guantanamo detainee is shackled to the floor while attending a class in "Life Skills" at Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this March 29, 2010 photo, reviewed by the U.S. military, photographed through one-way glass, a Guantanamo detainee is shackled to the floor while attending a class in "Life Skills" at Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

May 1, 2013

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that he still wants to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, as he had promised on the campaign trail in 2008:

For more on the hunger strikes at Guantanamo and President Obama’s latest promise to close the prison camp, listen to the latest from The World‘s Arun Rath.

I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” he said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

The problem, Obama said, is with Congress, which has blocked efforts to transfer detainees or close the prison camp.

Last November, the Senate approved an amendment to the annual defense budget bill to ban the transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered a colorful explanation for the provision to The Hill:

“We don’t want these crazy bastards brought here to the United States,” he said. “They want to steal your way of life, not steal your car. Have you lost your mind?”

Obama had threatened to veto the bill if the amendment passed, but signed it anyway, attaching a signing statement claiming the constitutional power to override the amendment. But he hasn’t yet done so, and it’s not clear whether he will: Congress made the same provisions in the 2012 defense bill, and he didn’t override those, either.

On Tuesday, Obama said he was going to try again. “I’m going to go back at this,” he said. “I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.”

But despite his stated desire to close Guantanamo, Obama has authorized at least four policies that have helped to preserve a detention system that he said Tuesday was “not sustainable”  — and made it more difficult for prisoners to be released. Here’s the list:

1. Detaining prisoners already cleared for release.

The administration has already transferred 72 detainees out of Guantanamo, and cleared another 86 for release, either to their home country or to another nation willing to take them. “There are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country,” Obama said on Tuesday.

But the administration put a freeze on any transfers after the 2009 attempt by a Nigerian man to bring down a US airliner. The man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is believed to have been inspired by a Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, and many of those cleared for release are from Yemen. The administration was concerned about returning them to a country besieged by terrorists. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), noting that the situation in Yemen had become more stable, called last week for the president to consider lifting the transfer ban.

2. Closing the office responsible for transferring detainees.

In January, the State Department announced that it was shuttering the office of the special envoy assigned to work on closing Guantanamo. Daniel Fried, the ambassador assigned to the post, worked to relocate detainees and find countries that might accept those who can’t be returned home, and secured the 72 transfers before the ban was put in place. Fried is now working on sanctions policy. The State Department said he wouldn’t be replaced.

3. Force-feeding detainees.

Currently, 100 of the 166 people currently being held in Guantanamo are on hunger strike, and 21 are being force-fed through tubes put down their noses. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said on Tuesday.

But the practice is a violation of medical ethics, according to the American Medical Association, which sent a letter of protest to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The definitive report on torture during the Bush administration, released in April by a nonpartisan task force, said that the practice is “a form of abuse and must end.”

The prisoners began the strike out of despair that they may never be released. Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the Obama administration in a recent letter that Red Cross staff members visiting the prison had said that the detainees’ level of desperation is “unprecedented.”

4. Preserving the designation of “indefinite detention.”

The Obama administration also determined that 46 detainees can never be released, either because they are too dangerous, or because they cannot be charged with a crime and put on trial.

On Tuesday, Obama said, “I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no man’s land in perpetuity … that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.” But even if Guantanamo were to close, the Obama administration would not release these detainees. Instead, they would be sent to a federal prison, to be held indefinitely without trial on U.S. soil.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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