President Obama unveiled a formal plan this week to finally close the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp by the end of his term, a goal he no doubt believes is central to his legacy. Yet, despite the seeming clarity of the plan’s four planks and the president’s inimitably authoritative delivery, the plan – like so much of our nation’s sordid history in Guantanamo – ignores several important realities.
For one, the plan obscures Obama’s earlier promise. Recall that on his first day in office, more than seven years ago, the president pledged to shutter the prison within one year. This promise was based on an election campaign that rightly recognized the deep injustice of the place – braided as its identity was with torture, arbitrary detention and the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 response. Indeed, the Bush administration deliberately located the detention camp in Guantanamo for the purposes of evading any law – one of the clearest historical examples of raw executive power displacing elementary constitutional and human rights principles. Guantanamo, Obama argued, is not who we are. Now that the prison has endured longer on his watch than his predecessor’s, what happened of his promise?
Obama is quick to fault congressional opposition, and no doubt its frequently craven national-security grandstanding and reflexive obstructionism made his mission more difficult, but much of the blame ultimately falls on the administration itself.
For example, the Obama administration stood by, and continues to promote as part of its closure plan, trials of 9/11 conspirators through a fundamentally unjust and practically unworkable military commission system — rather than fair, constitutional trials — which are largely preordained to secure convictions. This administration has failed to criminally prosecute any Bush administration officials for torture and war crimes so thoroughly documented in the 2014 Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on torture, and it has sought to dismiss any and all civil rights cases seeking accountability for human rights abuses committed in the War on Terror.
The Obama administration defended the legal positions of its predecessor, fighting tooth and nail against meritorious habeas corpus petitions brought by detainees. This has produced, in the very conservative D.C. circuit that hears such petitions, a legal landscape that authorizes indefinite detention on the thinnest of guilt-by-association pretexts and has eviscerated the possibility of “meaningful review” of a prisoner’s detention that had been promised by the Supreme Court in its then-landmark Boumediene v. Bush decision.