In his national security speech on May 23rd, President Obama reiterated his “commitment to closing Guantanamo.” While critics pointed out that Obama’s proposed solutions wouldn’t solve the most difficult problems posed by the detention facility – like the larger idea of indefinite detention in a conflict with no end in sight – the speech was widely regarded by the human rights community as a positive step.
Obama called for the creation of two new envoy posts, one at the State Department and one at Defense, whose sole mandates would be to focus on reducing the Guantanamo population. Obama also lifted a self-imposed moratorium on repatriating Yemeni detainees and said those detainees’ fates should be examined on a case-by-case basis. At the time, a months-long hunger strike at the prison had pushed Guantanamo back to the forefront of the media in a way not seen since at least the president’s re-election.
That hunger strike is now effectively over, though 16 detainees are still designated for being fed through a tube. After a chaotic summer and early fall news cycle, dominated by the conflict in Syria and the shuttering of U.S. embassies following an al Qaeda message interception, Guantanamo is now far from view. And a White House document leaked this summer, purportedly outlining the administration’s plan to close Guantanamo, left many critics disappointed. As journalist Daniel Klaidman wrote at the time, “It reads as much like an argument for why the prison can’t be closed anytime soon.” On Monday, 18 human rights groups sent a letter to Obama calling on him to “fulfill his recently renewed pledge to close” Guantanamo.
So, what kind of progress has been made since that speech in May? Clifford Sloan was named to the special envoy position at State in June, and successfully negotiated the repatriation of two Algerian detainees – some of the longest-held captives. They have since been released from Algerian custody but remain under “a form of supervised parole,” according to the Associated Press. They are the first detainees to leave Guantanamo alive since two Uighurs were released in April 2012; Yemeni citizen Adnan Latif died in custody in September 2012 and was sent home in a body bag.
When asked about tangible progress Sloan’s office has made since then, Michael Williams, a State Department official, reiterated “the president’s commitment to reducing the Guantanamo population” and stressed that “the commitment is ongoing,” but declined to offer specifics on the record. There are still 164 people held at Guantanamo Bay, 84 of whom have been cleared for transfer out of the facility as they have been deemed not a significant risk to national security.
Another detainee may be returning to his home country soon, though under less-than ideal conditions. A judge recently ordered the release of Ibrahim Idris after his attorneys argued his mental illness was too significant to render him a threat. The Department of Justice did not fight the case, though court papers don’t explain why the DOJ changed its position. The department’s press office was unable to respond to a request for comment due to the government shutdown.
Though the envoy position at State has been filled, the position at the Pentagon remains vacant. “The Department of Defense has not announced a Special Envoy for Guantanamo to date,” says National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden. (UPDATE: The Miami Herald is reporting that congressional lawyer Paul Lewis will be appointed later this week to serve as the Pentagon envoy for closing Guantanamo Bay.)
Another key Guantanamo position, the head of detainee policy, remains temporarily staffed following the resignation of William Lietzau. Alan Liotta, Lietzau’s second-in-command, has held the position – called the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rule of Law and Detainee Policy – since late summer.
About two months after Obama’s speech, a long-promised process for determining whether detainees pose a security risk if released, called Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), was restarted, as reported by the Miami Herald. The government has little to show publicly, however. Lt Col Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesperson, tells RS that “those who will be involved have been notified / designated,” but that no dates have been publicly announced for individual cases.
For some, though, the pace of reviewing detainees cases and instituting transfers is troubling. “Transfers are how we should be measuring progress, not new bureaucratic appointments or another alphabet-soup administrative review process, and there have been exactly two transfers in the four months since the May 23rd speech,” says Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who has represented Guantanamo detainees. “At this rate it will take another decade to transfer just the 84 men who’ve been cleared so far and remain detained.”
Beyond the general hurdles in closing Guantanamo, the government shutdown has created a somewhat bizarre legal situation there – as the restrictions that Congress placed on transferring detainees technically expired at the same time funding for the government ran out. The result is that legally – if not practically – the Pentagon now merely has to notify Congress 30 days prior to transferring a detainee to his home country. Other restrictions, such as mandating that the Secretary of Defense sign a waiver saying a detainee won’t engage in violent acts against the U.S. if released, are tied to funding bills that expired at the end of fiscal year 2013.
Hayden, the NSC spokesperson, confirmed that fact, but added: “Regardless of the status of the transfer restrictions during the Government shut down” the administration’s goal is to “responsibly reduce the detainee population and close the facility at Guantanamo Bay.”
Critics say that even with the restrictions in place, the President has considerably more room to maneuver than he has taken. “I would say that though [the shutdown] may mean some of the restrictions on transfer are not currently in force, that is not currently what is preventing the transfers from happening. It is political will,” says Laura Pitter of Human Rights Watch. “The president certainly had the power to make the transfers happen before the shutdown.”