Forever Gitmo: How Obama will try, and likely fail, to close Guantanamo

Protesters wear prison jump suits and hoods during an anti-Guantanamo Bay military prison demonstration in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on Jan. 8, 2013.
Credit: Saul Loeb

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — When President Barack Obama delivers his much-anticipated speech at the National Defense University this afternoon, he will undoubtedly be hoping to detract attention from a raft of scandals now plaguing his administration and move the national debate to more substantive issues.

If so, he is likely to be disappointed.

The president is expected to announce he will limit the use of controversial drone strikes against suspected militants and reopen the discussion on closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Both issues are more apt to heighten partisan wrangling than to calm it.

Guantanamo has recently moved to center stage with a hunger strike by more than 100 of the 166 detainees still incarcerated there. The prison administration has been force-feeding them, a practice human rights groups condemn as torture.

The New York Times recently published an op-ed article, “Gitmo is killing me,” by a detainee who was being force-fed.

“I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone,” wrote the prisoner, Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, who gave his testimony via interpreter by phone.

"Gitmo," as the US military facility in Cuba is known, has long been a thorn in Obama’s side. During his first campaign for the White House, in 2008, he repeatedly promised to close the facility, and signed an executive order to that effect on Jan. 22, 2009, just three days after taking office.

Although the shutdown was to take place within one year, four years and four months have passed with little movement on the issue.

Much of the problem lies with Congress, which has done all it can to block any initiatives to close down the facility.

"I think we are in the position, frankly, the prospects for closing Guantanamo, the best I can tell, are very, very low given very broad opposition to doing that here in the Congress," then Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee back in 2011.

The Guantanamo Bay detention facility was established in 2002 to house suspected terrorists then being rounded up by the hundreds in the global war on terror. President George W. Bush's administration considered that those detained were not entitled to even minimal protection by Geneva Convention standards; it took four years and a Supreme Court ruling to change that mindset.

Obama has argued that keeping a facility like Guantanamo open indefinitely isn't in the national interest.

“It’s not sustainable,” he said at a news conference last month. It makes no sense, he argued, “to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity.”

“All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

But if Obama has doubts, his critics do not. They cite the need for Guantanamo as a national security issue, and claim that letting any of the detainees out would pose a threat.

More GlobalPost analysis: With war over, Gitmo must be over

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, has spearheaded efforts to block any transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States, and is equally adamant that they not be sent back to a country where they might rejoin the fight.

"We know there is significant al Qaeda activity in Yemen," she said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "I obviously have some serious questions about Yemen."

More than half the detainees — 86 of the 166 — have been cleared but remain imprisoned indefinitely because no acceptable option exists for their transfer. The United States refuses to send prisoners back to Yemen, citing security concerns in that country. Approximately 90 of the 166 detainees, including 56 out of the 86 approved for transfer, are from Yemen.

Now, the president will push again to transfer Guantanamo prisoners and is expected to move to lift the ban on sending detainees to Yemen, US officials told the Journal.

There has been some movement of that front. Yemen is making progress on fulfilling US conditions for the release of the prisoners, including increased monitoring and rehabilitation programs. But significant obstacles remain.

Obama has alternately taken up the issue and let it drop, buffeted by political winds that he cannot control. He has tried to take the process out of the military justice system altogether, but to no avail.

One need only recall the storm of condemnation that greeted Obama’s decision to try Osama bin laden’s son-in-law, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, in New York rather than transfer him to Guantanamo. Critics objected to treating Abu Ghaith like a “common criminal” with full rights of the American system, rather than holding him in Guantanamo where US laws do not necessarily apply.

So the president faces fierce objection from the right, which accuses him of being soft on terrorists and playing fast and loose with American security, while those on the left cite the president's hypocrisy and indifference.

“The problem is that Obama has contributed to the crisis by acquiescing in congressional obstruction of his promise to close the facility,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial on May 1. The paper also accused the president of refusing “to expend political capital on closing Guantanamo.”

But after the scandals of the past weeks — the continuing furor over the Benghazi attacks in Libya; the mounting indignation by press advocates over the seizure of Associated Press phone records; and the mounting crisis over IRS targeting of conservative groups, it's difficult to gauge just how much political capital the president has left.

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