President Obama announced at a press conference the other day, seemingly out of the blue, that he intends to try again to get the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed down. The chances of getting that through Congress are slim and none, but there are some things he can do on his own. Here’s part of what he said:
Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it. And despite the fact that 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, I’m gonna 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 gonna reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.
And it’s not sustainable. I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we’re having success defeating Al Qaida core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these trans-national terrorist networks.
When we transfer detention authority in Afghanistan, 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 I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this. Why are we doing this? I mean, we’ve got a whole bunch of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around the country. Nothing’s happened to them. Justice has been served. It’s been done in a way that’s consistent with our Constitution; consistent with due process; consistent with rule of law; consistent with our traditions.
A lot of the blame for this goes to Congress for blocking the money to do move the prisoners anywhere, but as Benjamin Wittes points out, Obama is showing some serious hypocrisy here and ignoring his own role in the situation being what it is:
The President’s comments are bewildering because his own policies give rise to the vast majority of the concerns about which he so earnestly delivered himself in these remarks.
Remember that Obama himself has imposed a moratorium on repatriating people to Yemen. And Obama himself has insisted that nearly 50 detainees cannot either be tried or transferred.
True, he would hold such people in a domestic facility, rather than at Guantanamo Bay. But so what? does the President not understand when he frets about “the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity” that if Congress let him do exactly as he wished, he would still be doing exactly that—except that the number might not reach 100 and the location would not be at Guantanamo?
Obama has never had a coherent position on this issue. He’s had some great rhetoric about it, but his actions have not matched up with that rhetoric. I suspect this is because the ideals he professes conflict with the political calculations being made. There are dozens of prisoners at Gitmo who are innocent, who have been cleared by the courts for release but remain in custody. If they do release them to Yemen and one of them goes on to commit some horrible act of violence, perhaps because he’s been radicalized by a decade of torture and imprisonment at Gitmo, Obama knows that will kill him politically. And politics almost always wins out over principle.