Obama promise to close Guantánamo prison unfulfilled

The 10th anniversary of the Guantánamo Bay prison was marked with protests Wednesday, as closing the controversial detention facility remains a promise unfulfilled for President Obama.

Obama campaigned on closing the facility in Cuba and, in one of his first actions as president, issued an executive order calling for it to be dismantled within one year. But as he enters the final year of his first term, human-rights groups are dismayed that the end of Guantánamo is nowhere in sight. 

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While he remains committed to closing Guantánamo, the president has been hampered from making progress due to opposition from both parties, and he signed a law last month that placed heavy restrictions on transferring any detainees out of the facility.

“I know President Obama reiterated his pledge to close Guantánamo, but it’s not clear why we should believe him,” said Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “There is more he could have done to persuade Congress and fellow Americans that this is the right thing to do.”

Numerous human-rights groups, including Azmy’s, launched protests in Washington and across the globe Wednesday that marked the 10th anniversary of Guantánamo. 

Several hundred people gathered in Lafayette Park in the light rain, many wearing the orange jumpsuits and black hoods that have become synonymous with Guantánamo. After several speeches, they marched from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Supreme Court.

Ramzi Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law and lawyer for Guantánamo detainees, said the prisoners were launching their own protests on the anniversary by refusing to return to their cells and holding a three-day hunger strike.

Kassem told The Hill that his clients in Guantánamo remain hopeful, even if they are disillusioned that the pledge to close the facility has not materialized.

“Unfortunately, what happened in Guantánamo is another example of politics over sound policy — I don’t think the president was willing to spend the political capital,” Kassem said. “Guantánamo is still open, and it’s very much a self-inflicted wound.” 

The White House said the president continues to work to close Guantánamo in a difficult political environment. White House press secretary Jay Carney noted at Monday’s press briefing that both President Bush and Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have wanted to close the facility.

“The commitment that the president has to closing Guantánamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign,” Carney said. “We all are aware of the obstacles to getting that done as quickly as the president wanted to get it done, what they were and the fact that they continued to persist.”

In 2009, when the administration moved toward closing the prison, Obama faced fierce opposition from Republicans over where the detainees would be held. He also had to deal with resistance in his own party, and Senate Democrats blocked $80 million that would have funded closing Guantánamo during Obama’s first year.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.) defended the Guantánamo prison, arguing it’s too much of a risk to bring suspected terrorists to a U.S. prison.

“In an ideal world we would find another location, but quite frankly I don’t know where it would be,” King told The Hill on Wednesday. “If you send them overseas, there’s a greater risk of them being released, and here in the U.S. it opens all sorts of other issues.”

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who supports closing Guantánamo, said Congress is to blame for putting measures in place that make it nearly impossible to transfer detainees.

“Between restrictions on transferring detainees to the U.S. and restrictions on transferring them to foreign countries, you’ve got a situation in Guantánamo where once you put people there, there’s nowhere you can send them,” Smith said Wednesday in an appearance on National Public Radio. “I think that’s a horrible policy.”

In all, nearly 800 prisoners have been held in Guantánamo, and currently 171 remain. Of those, 89 have been cleared for transfer by an Obama administration task force. 

But actually transferring the prisoners can be a difficult matter. 

Some detainees have nowhere to go because Obama stopped transfers to Yemen in 2010. The defense authorization bill that Obama signed on New Year’s Eve bars transferring Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. for one year and places restrictions on transfers to foreign countries.

Human-rights advocates were upset that Obama signed the defense bill, not only because of the Guantánamo restrictions but also because the law expands the scope of military detention. 

Obama had threatened to veto the bill over the military detention provisions, but ultimately signed it after some changes were made that gave the administration more flexibility to use civilian courts and law enforcement for terror suspects.

Obama did issue a signing statement that said the restrictions on Guantánamo transfer could hinder national security interests, but it’s unclear what impact that might have.

“It’s a big blow,” Azmy said of the law. “What they effectively do is codify and ratify military detention as a presumption of U.S. law. And that’s a Rubicon that branches of government hadn’t really crossed before.”

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