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Political Battles Over Guantanamo

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: May 22, 2009

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During his first week in office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order signaling his intent to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by January 2010, and another order that called for a top-to-bottom review of U.S. detention policies. The moves brought praise from civil libertarians and some legal experts but political opposition is now growing.

This week, lawmakers in the president's own party voted not to release $80 million (Reuters) requested for the closure of Guantanamo. Senate Democrats said they pulled the money because there is no plan to close the camp, and some lawmakers expressed concern that detainees could be transferred to facilities on U.S. soil. "The feeling was at this point we were defending the unknown," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the chamber's No. 2 Democrat. "We were being asked to defend a plan that hasn't been announced."

To try to close the gap, Obama delivered a speech on national security laying out in general terms his plan to close Guantanamo, and his argument for balancing transparency with national security. "The prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security," he said. "It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it." In addressing the status of detainees, Obama caught the attention of many legal analysts by referring to some form of indefinite detention for those deemed to pose a major threat and who cannot be immediately prosecuted. "That's really the headline in this speech," says CFR's John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bellinger says he was also surprised that Obama made no announcement of plans to release Chinese Uighurs, calling it a "missed opportunity."

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute immediately following the president's, suggested one aspect of Obama's plan--bringing Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. soil--may never pass congressional muster. "I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come," Cheney said. CFR International Affairs Fellow Marisa L. Porges, a former policy adviser in the Department of Defense's Office of Detainee Affairs, says in a new podcast that because of the sensitivity of that issue, Obama faces a growing challenge in meeting his timeline of closing Guantanamo by the end of January 2010. For the moment, she says, Obama appears to be pursuing a path that will continue Bush administration policies, albeit "with minor tweaks." For instance, how questions of long-term detention are answered, or whether military commissions should fit into the overall legal framework, are similar to Bush administration strategies, Porges says.

The debate intensified amid revelations of a new terror plot to attack targets in New York City and a military airfield outside New York, and reports that one in seven of the more than five hundred prisoners released from Guantanamo during the Bush administration have returned to terrorism or militant activity (NYT). In recent weeks critics have protested the president's decision to release four Justice Department memos, written between 2002 and 2005, that justify CIA interrogation techniques, suggesting the move has given terrorists a playbook in the event of capture. Obama's refusal to release photographs (LAT) depicting alleged abuse of detainees, meanwhile, has angered human rights advocates who accuse the president of backtracking.

Making good on his promise to close Guantanamo by early next year--and reforming America's legal approach to dealing with terrorism--will continue to test the Obama administration, requiring resolution to a number of vexing questions. Porges, for one, says she is skeptical Obama will be able to meet the January 2010 deadline. As CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Daniel B. Prieto noted in a February 2009 report, the long list of needed fixes include a workable framework for detaining, interrogating, and trying "future terrorist suspects in a manner consistent with American law and American values."

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