Guantanamo Bay, Terrorist Trials, and Obama Administration Naïveté

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 24, 2011

Benjamin Wittes highlights just how out of touch President Obama and his Administration were at the beginning of their tenure when it came to the issue of closing Guantanamo Bay, and trying terrorist detainees, and points out that the Administration never had to be in the position in which it found itself:

For years, officials in the Bush administration, even those who were most sympathetic to bringing people to trial, had been stressing that the number of possible cases was limited. The most optimistic scenario for military commission trials never involved more than 75 or 80 detainees, and that was when the number of detainees altogether was many hundreds higher than the diminished population which President Obama inherited. The warnings that a clean sweep was not possible were not coming from the David Addingtons of the world. They were coming from people like John Bellinger III, who had been cautioning for years–literally, for years–that severe jurisdictional limitations would prevent trial of many Guantanamo detainees, and that evidentiary problems would prevent trial of many others. This information was very available to anyone who didn’t put ideological blinders on and ignore it. The only way to have been surprised by [Justice Department lawyer Matthew] Olsen’s findings was to have willfully ignored clear warning signs.

Those warning signs were ignored, of course, merely because members of the Bush Administration had been the ones responsible for bringing them to the attention of the new President and his team. Having long ago adopted the belief that the Bush Administration was venal and/or stupid, and that no good could possibly come from paying attention to warnings or advice from the Bush Administration on various issues, the Obama Administration failed to take into account the many bits of good advice that members of the Bush Administration had to offer. As far as Team Obama was concerned, it had all of the answers, and simply did not need to pay attention to anything that the Bush Administration had to say.

Turns out that confidence was misplaced, nyet? The Obama Administration has learned that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is harder than the Obama campaign thought that it would be, it has been forced to resort to military trials for terrorist detainees (given that a number of prominent Democrats–including New York Democrats like Charles Schumer–objected to civilian trials), it has had to resort to the use of indefinite detention for a host of other detainees (another staple of the Bush Administration that Team Obama criticized during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and the run-up to it), and it has been forced to endorse the wide-ranging interpretation of Presidential powers regarding lawfare and national security issues that the Bush Administration was made infamous for by its political opponents.

The amazing thing is that there have been no mea culpas from the Obama Administration. No admissions that it did not have all of the answers after all. No concessions that once one gets into the White House, the job looks a whole lot tougher than it appears from the campaign trail. No public realization–however grudging–that perhaps the Bush Administration did better work with a bad and uncertain hand in the aftermath of 9/11 than its political opponents gave it credit for.

It’s galling enough that the Obama Administration continues to pretend that it made no errors in addressing lawfare and national security issues. It is downright worrisome that the Administration’s continuing display of arrogance may lead to yet another set of policy blunders in the future.

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