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You Can Forget About Obama’s Promise To Close The Guantanamo Bay Prison

Guantanamo Bay Camp Entrance
Earlier this week, the Senate passed a military spending bill that appears to guarantee that President Obama will be unable to fulfill his campaign promise to close the prison at the Naval Base at Guantanmo Bay, Cuba that has held War On Terror prisoners for more than a decade now:

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved an annual military policy bill, and the White House spokesman said President Obama would sign it despite provisions that will make it extremely difficult for him to fulfill his promise of closing the terrorist detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The military measure, which passed in a 91-to-3 vote, includes provisions that ban the transfer of prisoners to United States soil, which has long been a core component of the administration’s plan to shut the prison.

Mr. Obama hadvetoed a previous version of the military measure as part of a larger fight over spending that was settled late last month. The House approved the new version of the military bill last week, 370 to 58, reflecting overwhelming bipartisan support.

The bill bans bringing Guantánamo detainees to the United States even for prosecution or continued detention in another prison and tightens restrictions on transferring detainees to other countries. Mr. Obama’s plan to close the prison involves transferring 53 of the remaining detainees and bringing the other 61 to a prison on American soil.

Closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay is an unfulfilled promise of Mr. Obama’s presidency, and the White House press secretary, Joshua Earnest, said on Tuesday that the administration would continue to press that goal.

Noting that Congress has previously adopted similar language banning the transfer of prisoners, Mr. Earnest said: “I don’t think this has any material impact on our ability to put together and send to Congress a thoughtful, carefully considered plan for closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and a plan that we believe merits the strong support of both Democrats and Republicans.”

Senate Republicans, however, indicated that there was little support for the administration’s plans, and they warned pointedly against any unilateral effort by the White House.

“Even when the Democrats controlled the Senate, there have been provisions that have prohibited the transfer of the terrorist detainees at Guantánamo to the United States of America,” Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, said at a news conference in the Capitol. “So this discussion that you’ve seen from the administration to say that the president is contemplating an executive order on this issue clearly would violate the law.”

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said voters should respond to the White House by electing a Republic president.

“The American people need to send a message by sending a new president a little over a year from now with a different view of what ought to be done in this country,” Mr. McConnell said. “It is very, very difficult to think of anything this administration hasn’t screwed up whether at home or abroad.”

The White House has indicated that President Obama will sign the spending bill notwithstanding the provision regarding Guantanamo Bay prisoners, so this matter will become law and is likely to remain so for the remainder of the President’s time in office. Most likely, this means that the plans that the President announced via an Executive Order signed on the day he took office in 2009 to close the prison, and which have been blocked by bipartisan majorities in Congress virtually every years since then, will go unfulfilled. The Administration isn’t admitting this, of course, and is instead suggesting that they will eventually present Congress with some kind of a plan that would deal with the remaining prisoners in the facility. However, it seems highly unlikely that whatever plan the Administration comes up with will satisfy the bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate that have long opposed any effort to close the prison and move prisoners to facilities in the United States or elsewhere.

Over the years, the number of prisoners has declined from where it was when the President took office, in no small part because the United States has been moving forward with a program that identifies prisoners eligible for release for one reason or another and seeks to relocate them either to their home countries or to other nations that are willing to take them. In the past, for example, this program has resulted in some prisoners being relocated to nations in South America and other locations far away from the Middle East and Afghanistan. This program has been a slow process, though, in no small part because of the political considerations involved and in any case  may not be completed before President Obama leaves office in January 2017. Even with this program, though, the Administration has identified a core group of prisoners that are likely to never be released, including many of the people involved in planning the September 11th attacks and other attacks on American and other Western targets. This list includes people like Khalid Shiekh Mohammed, the main planner of the September 11th attacks. For these people, the Guantamo facility will either need to be kept operational indefinitely or they would have to be relocated to a military or civilian facility somewhere in the United States. As noted, however, there is widespread bipartisan opposition to the idea of putting prisoners like this anywhere in the United States and that seems unlikely to change. Because of that, and as was noted in the wake of the controversial decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, the prison is unlikely to ever close. This bill would seem to guarantee that, at least for the remainder of President Obama’s time in office, and likely long thereafter, the prison facility will remain open.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Senate Republicans, however, indicated that there was little support for the administration’s plans, and they warned pointedly against any unilateral effort by the White House.

    “Even when the Democrats controlled the Senate, there have been provisions that have prohibited the transfer of the terrorist detainees at Guantánamo to the United States of America,” Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, said at a news conference in the Capitol. “So this discussion that you’ve seen from the administration to say that the president is contemplating an executive order on this issue clearly would violate the law.”

    This falls into the “whatever” category.

    Republicans never wanted it closed, and used it, to no real success, to attempt to paint Obama as weak on terrorism. Many Democrats wanted it closed because of the symbolic terror/torture connection. And the public is ambivalent. So too, am I

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Well you can’t hold these people in some ordinary Supermax prison. I hear those places are like pleasure cruises.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  3. C. Clavin says:

    A couple things:
    ~ Clearly this isn’t for lack of trying. The post above makes it crystal clear that Congress bears the responsibility for this travesty not Obama…even if the headline doesn’t. Are we concerned about the promise, or justice? Yeah…he probably shouldn’t have made the promise…meh.
    ~ Obama’s record of delivering is pretty decent with 70% either kept or compromised on:
    http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  4. @C. Clavin:

    Well, the real point is that it was a foolish promise to make, especially given the fact that even most Democratic legislators aren’t willing to close the prison and bring these people to the United States regardless of how secure the facility might be.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 9

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    So I’m just curious; why the concern over a campaign promise, and yet not one word about the lies and mis-information that have dominated the Republican debates? And I’m not talking about differences of opinion, but demonstrable lies?
    What, in your mind, is the distinction between a foolish campaign promise and campaigns built on mendacity?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3

  6. @C. Clavin:

    Because this item was in the news, and I’ve written about the issues surrounding Gitmo in the past.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 5

  7. Mikey says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Perhaps it was a foolish promise, but on the other hand, it’s one he had to make regardless. I think he probably figured it would be a difficult promise to keep, but there are times one must stand for what’s right even if the possibility of victory is slim.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  8. C. Clavin says:

    I forgot…the debates haven’t been in the news…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I was reminded a few days ago that McCain/Palin also promised to close Gitmo. So it may have been a “foolish”promise, but at least it was a genuine both-sides-do-it.

    I see McCain is now promising to fight it if Obama tries to do something unilaterally. Another of his full spectrum policy positions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  10. JohnMcC says:

    Won’t try to stir up any controversy where none exists but I have heard a couple of media ‘background pieces’ in which ‘administration legal advisers’ are quoted as saying that the C in C has control over military prisoners. Period.

    Makes me wonder if he’s going to just do it and dare the Repubs in congress to impeach him.

    It would be totally out of character for Barack. But…. meep! meep!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  11. @C. Clavin:

    I am not going to engage in another discussion over your apparent belief that complaining about me not attacking Republicans — which is demonstrably untrue — is at all relevant to the subject matter of this post.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 4

  12. Foster Boondoggle says:

    We are a nation of bedwetters. I don’t know if it was ever different, but with help from 24-hour-someone-is-doing-something-scary-somewhere media, we’ve unequivocally become a bunch of cowardly chickenshits.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. Scott F. says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Though I strongly agree with you that C. Clavin has no standing to determine what you choose to write about, I have to agree with him that the framing on this issue that both you and the NY Times use is profoundly off-target.

    The continuation of a prison at Guantanamo is a rancid stain on the moral standing of the US. To obscure that by discussing it primarily in the context of some box that Obama won’t be able to check off his Promises List is gross misdirection. The bipartisan timidity and callous immorality being demonstrated by Congress in this matter is the story and it should be the headline for EVERY article on Gitmo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  14. Michael says:

    @JohnMcC: Thank you for the meep meep. It’s been a long time since we last read that on another blog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Modulo Myself: Are those the same as the so called country club prisons ?
    I wonder how long the files on the prisoners will remained sealed ? Decades,, a century ?
    There are records and documents concerning the infamous Booth Conspiracy that are still classified. Files of the Kennedy assassination will probably never be released

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1