Policy: Law

How Obama shifted from 'shall be closed' to 'chipping away' at Gitmo

By |
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,National Security,PennAve,Terrorism,Guantanamo Bay,Cuba,Law

For President Obama, Guantanamo Bay has gone from a campaign-trail rallying cry to a political thorn in his side to an obvious acknowledgment of the limitations of his powers.

To say the president has backpedaled on his pledge to close the Cuban detention facility is putting it charitably.

Obama once left little doubt that he would shutter the controversial prison — and quickly.

But judging from his latest remarks on Gitmo — in which he suggested that he was “just chipping away” at the issue — it remains doubtful whether he will fulfill arguably the greatest unmet promise of his presidency by 2016.

A timeline of Obama’s words and actions on Guantanamo showcases how his rhetoric as a presidential candidate never quite meshed with political reality and how the issue slowly made its way to the White House’s back burner — where it has remained ever since.

June 2007: "We're going to close Guantanamo. And we're going to restore habeas corpus. We're going to lead by example — not just by word but by deed. That's our vision for the future."

Along with his opposition to the Iraq War, Obama championed the closure of Gitmo to outflank then-rival Hillary Clinton on the left, setting high expectations for the early days of a possible Obama presidency.

January 2009: “The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.”

This executive order signed by Obama marked one of his first actions as president, seemingly laying the foundation for Gitmo's closure.

December 2009: “The secretary of defense, working in consultation with the attorney general, shall prepare the [Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois] for secure housing of detainees currently held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.”

Under this presidential memorandum, Obama called for his administration to acquire an Illinois state prison to house Guantanamo prisoners, initiating a fierce debate on Capitol Hill about whether Gitmo inmates should be moved to U.S. soil. Lawmakers ultimately blocked funding for the facility -- and any other U.S. prison -- to be used for prisoners from the Cuba facility.

June 2010: “The president can’t just wave a magic wand to say that Gitmo will be closed.”

With lawmakers of both parties firmly opposed to their Gitmo efforts, an unnamed, senior administration official took a dramatically different tone on the president's ability to shutter the facility.

March 2011: “This order is intended solely to establish ... a process to review on a periodic basis the executive branch’s continued discretionary exercise of existing detention authority in individual cases.”

Obama through executive order established a review process for Gitmo detainees. The president also opted to re-establish military tribunals for those prisoners over the objection of many progressives.

January 2013: The State Department gets rid of the office working on closing Guantanamo Bay.

The Obama administration reassigns the special envoy tasked with closing the prison and decides not to replace him.

May 2013: "As president, I have tried to close Gitmo. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries or imprisoning them here in the United States.”

Facing criticisms for hunger strikes at the Cuba prison, Obama in a speech at the National Defense University announced that he would appoint a new senior envoy at the State and Defense departments to pursue the transfer of detainees to other countries. He also lifted the moratorium on such transfers to Yemen.

January 2014: “With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay – because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world.”

Obama returned to the issue of Gitmo in his highest-profile speech of the year -- after not mentioning it during his previous four State of the Union addresses.

May 2014: "Just chipping away at it."

When asked whether his successor would inherit Guantanamo, Obama gave an answer not likely to inspire confidence among the most ardent opponents to the prison. More than 150 detainees remain incarcerated, including dozens who the administration labels as too dangerous to return to their home countries.

View article comments Leave a comment

Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner