President Obama may still harbor ambitions to close Guantánamo Bay, but he faces a difficult path if he wins reelection and decides to pursue the goal in a second term.
Obama declaration last week on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” that he wants to close the military prison drew applause from the young, liberal audience he hopes to will turn out for him on Election Day.
Congressional Republicans are skeptical the president was serious about a renewed attempt to close Gitmo. Rather, they suggest he was playing to his liberal supporters in the runup to the election.
“It’s something he’s saying to appeal to his base,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told The Hill in an interview.
Ayotte, who has been one of the most outspoken Republicans on detention issues, said there was little support in either Congress or public opinion to close the facility and bring terrorists onto U.S. soil.
“There’s no way that [the administration’s efforts to close Guantánamo] are going to be greater than his first term,” she said. “I don’t see this as something he’s suddenly going to be able to turn around.”
Obama’s pledge to shutter the Guantánamo Bay military prison was one of his biggest campaign promises in 2008, and he signed an executive order his first week in office to close the military facility on Cuban soil.
Stewart’s question, in fact, used the same phrase that Obama did at the executive order signing ceremony.
But in the face of fierce opposition in Congress from Republicans, Obama backed away from his attempts to close the facility and move the terrorism trials from military commissions into federal courts.
Pre-trial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind who the Obama administration wanted to try in downtown Manhattan, resumed this week at Guantánamo Bay.
House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said that bipartisan opposition prevented the administration from closing the prison when Democrats held majorities in both chambers of Congress.
“If he wants to try again, that is his choice,” McKeon, who has helped lead GOP efforts to block transfers of Gitmo detainees in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), said in a statement to The Hill.
“I'd suggest that he precede the request with developing a comprehensible and consistent policy for detaining and interrogating terrorists,” McKeon added. “No one has ever argued that Guantanamo Bay is ideal, but before you talk about closing it you have to tell the country what you will replace it with.”
An Obama campaign official said that closing Guantánamo remains a priority for the president, and that he is committed to closing it in a second term.
The official noted that even while Gitmo remains open, the Obama administration has reduced the detainee population. Mitt Romney supports keeping the prison open and increasing its size, the official said.
Democratic aides in Congress acknowledge it would be difficult to gain enough support to close the military prison while Republicans retain control of the House. But they say that some traction has been made on the issue in the past year.
The annual NDAA has been the primary vehicle for Congress to restrict the transfer of detainees out of Guantánamo, as well as prevent funds from going to facilities on U.S. soil that would potentially house Gitmo detainees.
Democrats say the national interest — and resistance — that was sparked by the debate last year over indefinite detention was a turning point. The general public began questioning the U.S. detainee policies amid concerns about the possible detention of U.S. citizens.
Some libertarian-leaning Republicans joined with Democrats to support rolling back U.S. detention rules.
“I think we’ve made progress,” said one House Democratic aide.
“I think you can see the winds could be changing, and hopefully next year we’ll be able to make more progress and help support the president in his goal of shutting Gitmo.”
Still, most Republicans and some Democrats remain opposed.
Republicans slammed the Obama administration earlier this month after it purchased Thomson Prison in Illinois, a site that has been mentioned as a possible location for Guantánamo detainees.
The administration insisted the prison purchase was unrelated to Guantánamo, but Republicans were not convinced.
“Obama Administration officials today promised that Guantanamo terrorists will not be transferred to the Thomson prison, citing Congressional action prohibiting it,” House Homeland Security Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) said in a statement.
“I have trouble believing Obama Administration promises.”
Human-rights advocates who want Guantánamo closed expressed cautious optimism over the president’s statement on Thursday.
Obama has not mentioned Guantánamo much on the campaign trail, instead focusing his national security statements on the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the war in Iraq.
Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said that the administration’s failed attempts to close the prison have been disappointing. But she believes Obama remains serious and would try again in a second term.
“I don’t think he wants to go down in history as man who promised to go close down Guantánamo and didn’t,” Prasow said.
Guantánamo opponents say there’s new reason for optimism, as a federal appeals court this week threw out a conviction from Gitmo’s military tribunals of bin Laden’s driver, Salim Hamdan.
The court tossed the conviction against Hamdan because he was charged with a law created in 2006, and he committed the crime of providing material support to terrorists from 1996-2001.
Prasow said the ruling could throw into doubt future convictions at Guantánamo’s military tribunals.
“This could very well be the pivotal piece with respect to how Congress and the current administration review what the long-term effect of having Guantánamo remain open will be,” said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Even if there was a shift in Congress on military tribunals at Guantánamo, however, the question of moving detainees onto U.S. soil is perhaps the trickiest of all.
“It is a political reality, if they come to the U.S. they’re going to have to go into somebody’s congressional district, some senator’s state,” said a Democratic aide who supports closing the prison. “So those are difficult issues.”