The latest leaks of classified documents, which show that the U.S. government imprisoned hundreds of men at Guantánamo Bay on the most dubious “evidence,” brings to mind the question, Why hasn’t President Obama kept his promise to close the infamous prison that will forever stain America’s honor?
As the UK Guardian, one of the newspapers that disclosed the documents, reported, “The U.S. military dossiers ... reveal how, alongside the so-called ‘worst of the worst’, many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment.... More than two years after President Obama ordered the closure of the prison, 172 are still held there.... The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence.”
Many men were detained on the basis of hearsay after the U.S. government paid bounties for information. Some detainees had traveled to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban in the civil war, then were declared enemies of the United States after its invasion in October 2001. After years in custody hundreds of men whom the Bush administration had branded as the monsters were released, indicating they were no threat at all. For this reason Guantánamo is an international symbol of American criminality.
In March Obama signed an executive order permitting him to hold detainees indefinitely without charge or trial. The administration wishes to keep some prisoners in custody even though the supposed evidence against them would not be admissible in a court or even in a military tribunal, which has far less protection for defendants. Some of that evidence was obtained by methods most would regard as torture.
More than a year after Guantánamo was to be closed it remains open. Why, and why has Obama largely escaped criticism for breaking such an important pledge?
Previously the president’s defenders have claimed that his efforts to close the prison were thwarted by members of Congress, mostly Republicans. Is that true?
Obama signed an executive order calling for the closure two days after he was inaugurated in 2009, when the facilities held 241 prisoners. But “the fanfare never translated into the kind of political push necessary to sustain the policy,” reports the Washington Post. “The White House, often without much internal deliberation, retreated time and again in the face of political opposition.”
Obama did not want to risk political capital on the matter, and no leader in Congress was willing to go out on a limb without presidential backing.
The Post reports that Obama was shocked to learn that only 20–36 of the detainees could be brought to trial: “White House officials were in such disbelief that they asked Justice Department participants to write up a memo explaining exactly why they couldn’t bring more of the men to trial. In many cases, the intelligence gathered on the men was not court-worthy evidence.”
Administration officials claim to be surprised that in May 2009 the Senate voted overwhelmingly against an appropriation to close Guantánamo. But how could they really have been surprised when they did little or nothing to support the objective? The Post makes clear that public opinion polls running against closure also played a role in Obama’s retreat. His advisors warned that the issue would imperil his larger agenda.
Thus President Obama, the man heralded as a new kind of politician, is revealed as just another officeholder looking out for his own political fortunes. The United States had betrayed its commitment to due process and the rule of law, but rectifying that shameful record could not be allowed to impede the president’s political objectives. That demonstrates a perverse set of priorities.
It’s par for the course with Obama. Since taking office he has escalated the covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and has doubled down on Afghanistan. The resulting casualties and destruction have fueled further anti-American resentment. Now he is using drones over Libya, recklessly endangering the innocent. He has done what few once thought possible: out-war-mongered the Bush-Cheney gang.
And for the most part, the phony anti-war activists of the Bush years have lost their voices.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine.
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