When he first started running for president nine years ago, Barack Obama, a former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, spoke frequently about wanting to close the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay.
"As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions," Obama said in an August 2007 speech.
Back then, everyone from George W. Bush to Obama's rival, John McCain, agreed the prison needed to go. It was an albatross, a symbol of the horrid brutalities committed in the name of the war on terror—not to mention the most potent propaganda tool terrorist recruiters abroad could possibly have at their disposal.
Eight years later, despite some success here and there trimming the population at the extra-legal Cuban purgatory—mostly by shipping inmates overseas—Obama hasn't been able to wipe it off the face of the earth. He hasn't even come close.
On Tuesday, however, the president laid out a last-ditch plan to make that happen.
Speaking from the White House, Obama outlined a proposal detailing how cost savings from closing Gitmo could help pay for a new facility—location TBD—to house a few dozen inmates in the domestic United States. The rest of the 91 people incarcerated there (Obama inherited 245 detainees in 2009) would be moved to other countries.
At this point, any proposal Obama makes that requires congressional approval is a long shot, but the Gitmo plan in particular doesn't seem likely to become reality. Just last year, he signed a 2015 defense funding law that essentially makes doing what he wants to do impossible unless the law is overturned. But the plan gave Obama a chance to reiterate that despite his failure to close the notorious facility. He's still deeply troubled by its existence.
"I don't want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is," Obama said. "And if, as a nation, we don't deal with this now, when will we deal with it?"
It's only fair that a second-term president who is such a lame duck it's hard to imagine him getting a Supreme Court justice confirmed before leaving office might look ahead to his legacy. And Obama has made real strides when it comes to criminal justice reform for US citizens, leveling out the prison population after decades of growth and engineering the largest release of federal inmates ever.
But for a guy who has overseen everything from NSA surveillance to widespread drone attacks in the Middle East, Gitmo remains a black mark in Obama's civil liberties record—and advocates for closing the facility aren't exactly optimistic he'll finally shut it down.
"The fact that he announced the plan doesn't indicate any growing optimism on the part of the administration or any of the players involved that they're going to close Gitmo," says Joe Pace, an attorney with the human rights group Reprieve. Pace points out that the same defense bill that blocked Obama from spending cash on closing Gitmo required him to send Congress this very proposal.
Which is to say this wasn't some ambitious administration initiative so much as a "homework assignment," as Pace labels it.
The fact remains that Congress controls the government pursestrings, and it will cost a significant chunk of change to build a new facility to house foreign terrorism suspects.
Of course, that wouldn't be necessary if lawmakers didn't see apparently the men in Guantanamo as super villains capable of breaking out of any prison that is not an island.
"The president is correct that the security arguments against bringing detainees into the United States are way overblown," Matthew Waxman, a Columbia law professor and senior national security official in the Bush administration, wrote in an email. "We already imprison many hardened terrorists in US prisons, and although bringing detainees into the US entails some serious security and logistical challenges, they are certainly manageable if the political will is there."
The problem, then, is less some massive moral shortcoming on Obama's part than NIMBYism—a desire from members of Congress to keep these supposed terrorists as far away from their constituents as possible. And with the Republican presidential field generally supporting waterboarding and other extreme, questionable methods of fighting terrorism, it seems unlikely that Obama's successor will be able or even willing to shut down Gitmo.
"If a crystal ball told me 15 years from now we'd be in the exact same place, I would not be surprised," Pace says.
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