The terrorist prison isn't any closer to shutting down than it was than four years ago
President Obama renewed his promise to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, more than a month ago, but despite a flurry of grand rhetoric and a few perfunctory moves, the island terrorist quarantine isn't any closer to shutting than four years ago when the president first made the pledge on his second day in office.
The original premise for opening the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention -- was found unconstitutional five years ago, Obama pointed out during a major foreign policy speech at the National Defense University in late May.
"Our allies won't cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo," he said.
Following those remarks, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has long supported closing Gitmo, and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, joined White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on a trip to Guantanamo Bay and afterward released a joint statement vowing to restart work with Congress to close it.
And last week, Obama named a new envoy to the State Department Office of Guantanamo Closure, which has been in limbo since the administration gave up attempts to close the prison in the face of ardent opposition in Congress.
But fierce resistance in Congress hasn't gone away. In mid-June, the House passed a $638 billion defense bill that specifically prevents Obama from closing the facility.
The Guantanamo Bay facility currently holds 166 prisoners, the majority of whom are Yemeni, with 86 of them cleared for transfer as long as security restrictions are met. The detainees have languished in the prison for years, and more than half of them have been engaging in hunger strikes to draw attention to their predicament.
The Obama administration stopped the transfers to Yemen after learning that a botched airline bomb plot on Christmas Day in 2009 was originated by a Nigerian militant with ties to Yemen who concealed explosives in his underwear.
In his May speech, Obama said Yemenis' transfers will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Reacting to the speech, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Yemen is not stable enough to be able to handle the detainees' return and says the recidivism rate among former detainees has steadily climbed to at least 28 percent.
"If we were to transfer those individuals to Yemen, we'd be just like turning them loose," he said.
Human rights advocates counter that official U.S. recidivism rates are highly suspect because no one knows how the intelligence community comes up with the figures.
David Remes, an attorney who represents several Guantanamo Bay detainees, points to the ousting of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and the turnover of power to Abd Rabbuh Mansur in the Arab Spring as cause for increased confidence in the stability of that country's government.
But Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it's impossible for U.S. officials to have complete confidence in the Yemeni regime unless it places the repatriated detainees under house arrest or provides them a permanent security detail.
Even so, Cordesman, who served as an adviser for McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, downplays the threat released Gitmo detainees would pose. Only a small fraction would end up back in terrorist groups - and even those wouldn't be likely to have senior roles.
"There are a lot of mid-level extremist leaders out there," he said. "Coming back into the system after years at Gitmo doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a hero."