President Obama could not have picked a worse week to take a stand in defense of his pledge to close Guantanamo Bay prison.
On Wednesday, Senate Democrats led the way in overwhelmingly rejecting, by a vote of 90 to 6, the administration’s request for $80 million to relocate the Guantanamo detainees, a decision that replicates an earlier rebuff by the House last week and makes it increasingly unlikely that Guantanamo will be closed by Obama’s much-hyped January 2010 deadline.
Later that afternoon, FBI director Robert Mueller threw another spammer in the works when he warned that transporting Gitmo’s denizens to U.S. prisons could enable them to radicalize America’s prison population, as well as plot and carry out terrorist attacks.
Then, on Thursday, news broke of a still-unreleased Pentagon report finding that of the 534 detainees originally held at Gitmo, one in seven returned to terrorism upon their release.
In short, it was an unpropitious time to make the case that Guantanamo Bay was endangering American security; that it was undermining the U.S.-led war against Islamic terrorism; and that its closure was of the utmost importance.
Yet that is precisely what Obama did yesterday morning, as he delivered what was billed as a national security address but what was in reality a not-so-thinly veiled attack on the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies and a labored attempt to justify a move that few – including few Democrats in Congress – actually support.
In keeping with the administration’s weakness for well-scripted symbolism, Obama spoke at the National Archives in the nation’s capitol. Presumably, this home of the U.S. Constitution was intended to send the message that closing Gitmo was not only strategically wise but also consistent with the country’s founding documents.
If so, the point was lost in a speech that failed to compensate in soaring rhetoric for what it lacked in basic coherence. And it didn’t help the president’s case that he was competing for coverage with former vice president Cheney, whose own speech at the American Enterprise Institute – a rousing, impressively unapologetic defense of the Bush administration’s record in keeping the country safe – threatened to overshadow his president’s.
Substantively, the president’s speech was a confused jumble. In no small part, this was because the Obama administration has quietly adopted many of the Bush-era policies that the president feels called upon to condemn.
For instance, the president criticized the Bush administration’s detention regime and stressed that federal courts were adequate to the task of prosecuting terrorist suspects. In a curious transition, Obama then endorsed the previous administration’s position repudiating U.S. courts in favor of Military Commissions, which he explained are an “appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war.”
It bears noting that during the presidential campaign Obama railed against what he called “a flawed military commission system.” Since taking office, however, his administration has followed this system with only the most cosmetic of changes. Lest anyone wonder, the president assured that this did not constitute a “reversal” on his part. That settles that.
On the controversial matter of transporting Gitmo detainees to U.S. prisons, Obama was only slightly more consistent. While he pointed to high-security “supermax” federal prisons as a suitable alternative, Obama largely dodged the pressing question of which prisons, and which states, would receive the detainees.
The omission was not exactly surprising. Bringing Gitmo’s terrorists to the U.S. remains widely unpopular among both Republicans and Democrats, few of whom are prepared to incur the political risk of actually accepting the inmates. As Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid succinctly put it, “We don’t want them around.” Against this political backdrop, the president’s refusal to offer any specifics about the transfer policy he proposes must be seen as an abdication of responsibility.
He stumbled yet again in his discussion of detention policies. On the one hand, Obama denounced the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects under the Bush administration, stating that “detention policies cannot be unbounded.” At the same time, he made sure to add that that he was “not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.” So, which was it?
The latter was closer to the Bush administration’s approach and, though one wouldn’t know it from yesterday’s remarks, it is Obama’s as well. For all its recrimination and finger pointing, the Obama administration has claimed the right to detain indefinitely al-Qaeda and Taliban captives, including those who have not been charged with a war crime (a position upheld by a federal court this week.) That leaves open the interpretation that yesterday’s speech was a cynical ploy to follow the Bush administration’s course on detainee policy while taking credit for a supposed break with the past.
Obama was more forthright – if not more convincing – in his assessment of Guantanamo’s impact on the larger war on terror. “The record is clear,” the president said, “rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security.”
Even from Obama’s own remarks, though, this was anything but clear. The president noted, for instance, that Guantanamo is home to terrorists who remain a threat to the United States, including “people who have received extensive explosives training at al-Qaeda training camps, commanded Taliban troops in battle, expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.”
That echoes earlier findings by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point that 73 percent of Gitmo detainees are a “demonstrated threat” to Americans, while 95 percent were at the least a “potential threat.” Since Guantanamo is the reason that these detainees have not been able to carry out additional terrorist attacks, it defies common sense to claim that the prison has “weakened” national security.
Beyond shoddy logic, Obama’s speech also had serious practical flaws. Obama pointed out that his “review team” has approved 50 detainees to be transferred from Guantanamo. What he could not say is where these detainees would be transferred, alluding vaguely to “discussions with a number of other countries.”
That was no coincidence. European countries have been unwilling to take in detainees, even if it means an expedited end to the detention center they have denounced as an affront to human rights. Britain and France, for example, have agreed to accept just one prisoner each. As Cheney observed in his AEI speech, Obama may have won “applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo,” but “the United States has had little luck getting other countries to take hardened terrorists. So what happens then?”
What indeed. Sending the detainees back to their countries of origin is no solution. Of the 240 prisoners who remain at Guantanamo, nearly 100 are from Yemen, whose policy of dealing with detainees through “rehabilitation” programs, paired with its popularity as a destination for ex-Guantánamo inmates eager to rejoin terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, makes it a singularly poor choice to accept the detainees. It’s no wonder that the most effective point made by Cheney yesterday concerned the difficulty of the choices facing the government as it works to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil.
While the president’s rhetoric often suggests otherwise, that reality may be dawning on the Obama administration. In this connection, perhaps the best that can be said of the president’s address is that his actions don’t match his words. As Harvard law professor and former Bush official Jack Goldsmith observed in the New Republic this week, on a host of national security issues – from military detention, military commissions, and targeted killings, to habeas corpus rights, rendition and surveillance programs – the Obama administration’s policies are largely indistinguishable from the policies in the later years of the Bush administration. “The main difference between the Obama and Bush administrations concerns not the substance of terrorism policy, but rather its packaging,” Goldsmith wrote.
The Guantanamo debate is a case in point. Yesterday’s dueling speeches were a clash of styles more than substance. True, Obama continues to attack the Bush administration’s record on national security, often unfairly. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, President Obama has paid his predecessors the ultimate compliment.