One of the points made by Donald Rumsfeld in his book, and in the book talk that I attended, is that for all of the controversy surrounding the detention of terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay, no one, when pressed, has found a better, more workable option than to house detainees there. To be sure, no one feels warm and fuzzy about the fact that the United States is keeping these suspects in detention, and in his book, Rumsfeld points out that it was never his desire to have the Department of Defense involved in detention policy, and that he sought, whenever he could, to reduce the prison population in Guantanamo Bay by relocating the prisoners. From the outset, the Defense Department was uncomfortable with the prospect of having the United States serve as the jailer of hundreds of terrorism suspects.
But as imperfect as Guantanamo Bay was–and is–as a detention locale, it remains better than all of the alternative locations considered during Rumsfeld’s time, and those considered after George W. Bush left office. For these reasons, in his book, Rumsfeld calls Guantanamo Bay “the least worst place” to house detainees.
Barack Obama campaigned, and came to office on the promise that he would close Guantanamo Bay. But the third year of his Presidency has commenced, and we are no closer to closing the detention facility there. Quite the contrary; the Obama Administration has actually reaffirmed, and increased its reliance on Guantanamo Bay as a detention locale:
President Obama signed an executive order Monday that will create a formal system of indefinite detention for those held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who continue to pose a significant threat to national security. The administration also said it will start new military commission trials for detainees there.
The announcements, coming more than two years after Obama vowed in another executive order to close the detention center, all but cements Guantanamo Bay’s continuing role in U.S. counterterrorism policy.
Administration officials said the president is still committed to closing the prison, although he made no mention of that goal in a short statement Monday. The administration’s original plans to create a detention center in the United States and prosecute some detainees in federal court have all but collapsed in the face of bipartisan congressional opposition.
The executive order recognizes the reality that some Guantanamo Bay detainees will remain in U.S. custody for many years, if not for life. The new system allows them the prospect of successfully arguing in the future that they should be released because they do not pose a threat.
But activists on either end of the debate over closing the prison cast the announcement as a reversal.
“It is virtually impossible to imagine how one closes Guantanamo in light of this executive order,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “In a little over two years, the Obama administration has done a complete about-face.”
As the article notes, 48 of the 172 detainees who remain at the facility will not be eligible for military tribunals, because of evidentiary problems. The article tells us that “intelligence assessments also concluded that these detainees remain a serious threat and could not be safely repatriated or resettled in a third country. The administration said it will hold reviews for detainees it plans to prosecute but has not charged.” We might have all of the reviews in the world, but it appears, from even the most cursory reading, that these detainees are subject to indefinite detention.
It is plain as day that for all practical purposes, there is no difference between this state of affairs, and the situation during the Bush Administration. Despite the promises made by then-Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign–promises reaffirmed by President Barack Obama ever since his Inauguration–the Obama Administration has discovered that it is a lot harder to govern on detention policy, than it is to give speeches. The President and his team also appear to have discovered that the Bush Administration did a better job at designing and implementing a detention policy than critics were willing to admit. Curiously enough, these forgoing observations were offered by Donald Rumsfeld in his book, and in his book talk, well before the Obama Administration decided today that it is not yet willing to shutter the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.