The President & the prison camp

justiceflagsPresident Barack Obama was waiting for the question. That was made clear by the force and length of his Tuesday comments on Guantánamo, where the United States has imprisoned upwards of 800 noncitizens over the course of the last 11 years. As posted, right now many of the remaining 166 detainees are refusing to eat. Nearly 2 dozen of the 100 hunger strikers are so weak that the government is force-feeding them, and sending in more medics to aid the effort. Thus came CBS reporter Bill Plante’s question at a presidential news conference:

‘Q: Mr. President, as you’re probably aware, there’s a growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, among prisoners there. Is it any surprise, really, that they would prefer death rather than have no end in sight to their confinement?’

“It is not a surprise to me,” Obama began, then followed with an I-told-you-so response. As indicated in the full transcript, Obama reminded reporters that closure of the post-9/11 camp had been a centerpiece of his 2008 presidential campaign. GTMO, he said, “is not necessary,” “not sustainable”: “It is expensive” and “inefficient,” a practice that “hurts us in terms of our international standing,” that “lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts,” and that operates as “a recruitment tool for extremists.”

All this was true in 2007, as the President said. It remains true in 2013. So why’s GTMO still open?

Obama placed the blame squarely at the feet of Congress, contending that legislation had blocked his efforts to transfer detainees. But that explanation failed to acknowledge the Administration’s role in the current state of affairs:

► The day after his 2009 inauguration, Obama did sign a close-GTMO-in-1-year order. But he did not put full political capital behind it, concentrating instead on the health care overhaul, and so the year’s deadline came and went.

► Congress did hamstring detainee transfers. But Obama never tested his complaint that this legislation could be unconstitutional. What’s more, The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reminded in a “News Hour” segment Tuesday, Congress relaxed its restrictions in 2012, yet “the administration has not exercised that authority once.” Yemenis make up “56 of the 86 detainees long since approved for conditional release,” Savage said, adding that “it is Mr. Obama’s own self-imposed ban on any transfers to that country which has primarily kept them locked up.”

terror► Many in Congress did favor GTMO military commissions. But as Wall Street Journal reporter Jess Bravin writes in his new book, The Terror Courts, it was because of the insistence of an official Obama had placed at the Pentagon, then-Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, that the commissions did not end with Obama’s election. Bravin reports that only after that decision was made did Johnson discover the abysmal shape of the case files he’d inherited. Most cases are not much further along than they were when I observed commissions proceedings ‘way back in December 2008 (and made the photo at top). Moreover, acceding to continued GTMO prosecutions has undermined the Administration’s professed preference for trying terrorism suspects Stateside – a fact demonstrated in last month’s calls to label the Boston Marathon arrestee an “enemy combatant.”

It’s to be hoped that Obama fulfills his new promise to put GTMO on his policy agenda – that he “re-engage[s],” and not only “with Congress,” as he put it during the press conference, but also with officials in his own Executive Branch, to end both the camp and the endless-detention regime for which it stands. As Obama said:

‘[T]he notion that we’re going to continue to keep over a hundred individuals in a no man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al-Qaida core, we’ve kept the pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority in Afghanistan — the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried — that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.’

To which should be added: As I’ve written here, here, and here, practices have contravened not just “our interests,” but also our settled laws.

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