By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America... The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable.
Those were the words issued by President Barack Obama on January 22, 2009 -- his second full day on the job after his historical inauguration as America's 44th Chief Executive -- engraved in an executive order that was meant to kick-start the process of closing, once and for all, the controversial Gitmo prison system for terrorism suspects caught on the battlefield. Candidate Obama, the constitutional law professor from Harvard who was held up as the beacon for liberal Democrats after eight years of conservative Republican rule in the White House, extolled the absolute need to shut down Gitmo on the trail. So, when McCain was defeated by Obama in November 2008, the very same liberals and civil libertarians who voted for him expected the Bush-era facility to close its doors quickly.
President Obama seemed to grasp the urgency of the situation and the desires of his constituents almost immediately. Yet, what the president didn't realize was how difficult actually closing the Guantanamo detention facility would actually be. Indeed, six years into his presidency, the prison remains open and about 149 people remain locked up. When Republicans captured the House of Representatives in 2010, the handwriting was on the wall: the job of closing Guantanamo would be impossible until Democrats were able to retake the chamber. The fact that Republicans have a very good chance at taking the Senate next month means that one of the issues that the president was extremely passionate about -- leading America out of the indefinite detention business -- will almost surely languish after he leaves office.
Obama, it appears, is not willing to take no for an answer on the Gitmo question. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 10 that the administration is taking a comprehensive -- and one could argue desperate -- look at what it can do unilaterally to meet the commitment that the president made on January 22, 2009. One of the options reportedly being considered is a presidential signing statement attached to the 2015 Pentagon defense bill that would simply state that congressional restrictions on closing Guantanamo infringe on the president's powers as Commander-in-Chief. This would not be altogether unusual: the president has issued similar signing statements about Gitmo in the past. Yet even after making the "this is unconstitutional" argument, he has always followed the prohibitions that Congress has put in place. With two years left in his presidency and complaints about executive authority already at a fever pitch from Republicans, it would be a stretch for the White House to all of a sudden break from its past behavior by ignoring Congress on the subject of Gitmo. The White House's quick denial on the WSJ report would lend credence to the belief that the administration is essentially stuck on Guantanamo -- wanting to shut it down, but powerless to do so.
You cannot fault the president for trying. Closing the Gitmo detention facility and ending the eye-sore symbolism that the prison has come to represent was supposed to be one of the big line-items that would differentiate this administration from its predecessor. For a president with a background in constitutional law, nothing is more desirable than returning the country to the habeas corpus, law-and-order tradition that is embedded in the U.S. Constitution. It's not as if Obama hasn't failed for a lack of trying; he has repeatedly called upon Congress to allow him to transfer prisoners to their home countries, and he has used every lawful avenue at his disposal in order to gradually empty the cells. Unfortunately, erasing Gitmo prison from America's collective memory has proven to be far more complicated than even the most outspoken civil libertarian could have imagined.
Like it or not, Guantanamo will be with us for a long time -- or, at the very least, until Obama marches with his successor down Pennsylvania Avenue during the 2016 inauguration.