Obama Wants A Gitmo Do-Over, But Is It Going Anywhere?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Briefing Room of the White Hou
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Briefing Room of the White House on April 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama answered questions on various issues including the current situations in Syria. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Jan. 23, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an presidential memorandum, ordering the closure of the detention facilities at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Since then, those detention facilities have remained naggingly un-closed. So, hey, let's give this another shot, shall we?

"I'm going to go back at this. ... 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."

That's Obama, Tuesday, at a press conference coming at the tail end of the first 100 days of his second term, re-upping on the Gitmo closure goal. On Tuesday's "All In," MSNBC host Chris Hayes plans to discuss the future of Gitmo detainees -- and whether Obama can move the needle on the issue at all.

As HuffPost's Ryan Reilly reported, Obama had a lot of reasons to cite in favor of closure: "I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep us safe. 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." All basically true.

But if there's anything driving renewed attention to the infamous detention center, it's that things have recently gone ass-over-tea kettle at the facility. As recently as three days ago, 100 of the detainees were involved in a mass hunger strike, and the military had to call in reinforcements to facilitate force-feeding.

Mo' Gitmo, mo' problems, in other words. What's the solution? Well, there it gets vague. In his news conference Tuesday, Obama alluded to an unwillingness among legislators to enable the facility's closure. But this is not the same old GOP-specific obstruction that's imperiled many White House priorities. Back in 2009, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declaimed, "Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States." In case you didn't notice, that's two separate conditions -- there must be a comprehensive plan, and that plan cannot include "terrorists" on American soil (save the territory claimed at Gitmo).

Of course, the "terrorist" label has been famously loosely applied to the entire inmate population, some of whom will not be proceeding to any sort of trial proceedings. As the USA Today reports:

Eighty-six Guantanamo prisoners were cleared for release more than three years ago. Most of them are from Yemen, but Obama halted transfers to that country following a failed attempted by a Nigerian man to blow up a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day 2009. The assailant had ties to the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In this way, the problem that Gitmo may pose as a symbol is the overstated dilemma, compared with the problem of the indefinite detention of prisoners who have been deemed releaseable. As Charlie Savage reported in The New York Times this week, outrage over the fate of detainees deemed clear for release led United Nations high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay to "denounce" Gitmo, saying, “As a first step, those who have been cleared for release must be released. This is the most flagrant breach of individual rights.”

As Savage went on to report, William Lietzau, "the top detainee policy official at the Pentagon" countered by saying that "government" nevertheless "considers them part of the enemy," and that no court has actually determined that these detainees have been "cleared for release." At the same time, he maintained that "transfers should be an executive branch, commander-in-chief decision."

And I'm afraid you have to judge Obama by his actions in this regard. Rather than enable a more sensible or streamlined route to transfer detainees out of this toxic legal limbo, he's erected new barriers, the most famous of which were a set of July 2012 executive orders that hampered the inmates' access to what meager legal options they had. Here's Lyle Denniston, at SCOTUSBlog:

For years, the federal government -- in two administrations -- has taken the view that the detainees being held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay have very few legal rights, if any. Even after the detainees gained a constitutional right, from the Supreme Court, to challenge their captivity, the government continued to treat that as a narrow legal opportunity. Now, the Obama Administration is taking the position that the opportunity has been used up by many at Guantanamo, and so they cannot even meet with their lawyers unless a military commander consents.

It was a move that the editors of The New York Times appropriately deemed "spiteful":

The Obama administration’s latest overuse of executive authority at Guantánamo Bay is a decision not to let lawyers visit clients in detention under terms that have been in place since 2004. Because these meetings pose little risk and would send a message about America’s adherence to the rule of law, the administration looks as if it is imperiously punishing detainees for their temerity in bringing legal challenges to their detention and losing.

It would seem, then, that for all of Obama's concern over the problem Gitmo poses, he's not at all concerned -- or at the very least, prepared to address -- the problem of indefinite detention. It was ever thus, argues Glenn Greenwald:

I've written many times before why this claim, though grounded in some truth, is misleading in the extreme. I won't repeat all of that here; click the links and read the documentation proving its truth. In sum, Obama sought not to close Guantánamo but simply to re-locate it to Illinois, and in doing so, to preserve what makes it such a travesty of justice: its system of indefinite detention. The detainees there are not protesting in desperation because of their geographical location: we want to be in Illinois rather than a Cuban island. They are sacrificing their health and their lives in response to being locked in a cage for more than a decade without charges: a system Obama, independent of what Congress did, intended to preserve. Obama's task force in early 2010 decreed that "48 detainees were determined to be too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" and will thus "remain in detention": i.e. indefinitely imprisoned with no charges. Given these facts, one cannot denounce the disgrace of Guantánamo's indefinite detention system while pretending that Obama sought to end it, at least not cogently or honestly.

"The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop."

But as you can see for yourself, this has been the Obama White House's "idea," all this while. I'm not sure what "re-engaging with Congress" is supposed to solve. I suppose we are going to find out.

[As mentioned before, Chris Hayes plans on discussing the future of Guantanamo on his show, "All In With Chris Hayes" Tuesday, 8 p.m., on MSNBC.]



Inside Guantanamo Bay