As everyone knows, “closing Guantánamo” was a centerpiece of the 2008 Obama campaign. In the Senate and then in the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly and eloquently railed against the core, defining evil of Guantánamo: indefinite detention.
On the Senate floor, Obama passionately intoned in 2006: “As a parent, I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantánamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.” During the 2008 campaign, he repeatedly denounced “the Bush Administration’s attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantánamo.”
In the seventh year of Obama’s presidency, Guantánamo notoriously remains open, leaving one of his central vows unfulfilled. That, in turn, means that Democratic partisans have to scrounge around for excuses to justify this failure, to cast blame on someone other than the president, lest his legacy be besmirched. They long ago settled on the claim that blame (as always) lies not with Obama but with Congressional Republicans, who imposed a series of legal restrictions that impeded the camp’s closing.
As I’ve documented many times over the last several years, that excuse, while true as far as it goes, does not remotely prove that Obama sought to fulfill his pledge. That’s because Obama’s plans never included an end to what he himself constantly described as the camp’s defining evil: indefinite detention. To the contrary, he explicitly demanded the right to continue to imprison Guantánamo detainees without charges or trial –– exactly what made Guantánamo so evil in the first place — based on the hideous new phrase “cannot be tried but too dangerous to release.” Obama simply wanted to indefinitely imprison them somewhere else.
In other words, Obama never sought to close Guantánamo in any meaningful sense but rather wanted to relocate it to a less symbolically upsetting location, with its defining injustice fully intact and, worse, institutionalized domestically. In that regard, his Guantánamo shell game was vintage Obama: He wanted to make a pretty, self-flattering symbolic gesture to get credit for “change” (I have closed Guantánamo) while not merely continuing but actually strengthening the abusive power that made it so odious in the first place.
All of this is worth emphasizing because the close-Guantánamo controversy is back in the news as the result of what the Washington Post today, citing anonymous U.S. officials, describes as “an internal disagreement over its most controversial provision — where to house detainees who will be brought to the United States for trial or indefinite detention.” The Post said that “as part of the plan, the administration had considered sending some of the 116 detainees remaining at the prison to either a top-security prison in Illinois or a naval facility in Charleston, S.C.” Most members of Congress who love to parade around as super-tough warriors claim to be petrified about imprisoning Terrorist super-villains in their states, even though one of the few things at which the U.S. still excels is building oppressive penal institutions.
But even Obama’s current Guantánamo plan — like all his previous ones — does not seek to end indefinite detention. It does the opposite: It insists on the right to continue to indefinitely imprison detainees, most of whom have already been kept in a cage for more than a decade with no charges or trial. In that regard, Obama — as has been true since the first day of his presidency — is not seeking to “close Guantánamo” but rather relocate it, as Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth noted today:
The ACLU also made this point from the moment Obama first unveiled his “move Guantánamo” plan and Democratic partisans pretended it was a “close Guantánamo” plan.
As the ACLU’s Ben Wizner told me in an interview back in 2009, Obama’s Guantánamo plan — long before Congress took any action — was more likely to strengthen the camp’s scheme of indefinite detention than end it, just as Obama did with so many other once-controversial Bush/Cheney War on Terror policies:
It may to serve to enshrine into law the very departures from the law that the Bush administration led us on, and that we all criticized so much. And I’ll elaborate on that. But that’s really my initial reaction to it; that what President Obama was talking about yesterday is making permanent some of the worst features of the Guantanámo regime. He may be shutting down the prison on that camp, but what’s worse is he may be importing some of those legal principles into our own legal system, where they’ll do great harm for a long time.
Obama-excusing Democrats also love to point out that even Democratic Senators such as Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders voted for legislation blocking Obama’s Guantánamo plan, implying that even the Senate’s most liberal members wanted Gitmo to remain open. But these Obama advocates never mention that those votes were based on their concerns about Obama’s desire to simply relocate the camp to U.S. soil and thus strengthen its core injustice. And all of that is to say nothing of all the limits on closing Guantánamo, which Obama himself (not the Republicans) imposed.
In sum, it’s true that Congress impeded Obama’s Guantánamo plan. But it’s misleading in the extreme to pretend that Obama’s plan was ever about ending the core injustice of that camp. If anything, Obama’s plan would have, and if it succeeds still will, institutionalize and strengthen the Bush/Cheney scheme of indefinite detention: the very same beyond-the-law framework that made them want to open the camp, and made it a symbol of injustice around the world, in the first place.