By Alan W. Dowd
As he left the White House,
President Barack Obama left behind a number of surprisesfor the new president and new Congress. One came to light just recently. On his
last day in office, the president sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan repeating
his view that the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) must be closed. “There is simply no justification beyond politics for the
Congress’ insistence on keeping the facility open,” Obama wrote. “Members of
Congress who obstruct efforts to close the facility, given the stakes involved
for our security, have abdicated their responsibility to the American people,”
he added, using one of his favorite cudgels—the notion that opposition to his view
is cynical and political, never principled—one last time.
It was on
January 22, 2009, that Obama directed the Pentagon to close the Gitmo detention
facility “no later than one year from the date of this order.” Obama
believed Gitmo to be “contrary to who we
are” and that it “hurts us in terms of our international standing.”That’s a valid and reasonable perspective. But like a Rorschach
inkblot, there’s another perspective about Gitmo,
which helps explain why the prison is still open eight years after Obama
ordered it to be closed.
pays to recall why the facility came into existence. The Bush
administration didn’t premeditate
a plan to banish our stateless enemies to endless sentences in a hopeless
place. Rather, as U.S. forces rolled through
Afghanistan and then launched a global dragnet against al Qaeda and its
affiliates, the Bush national-security team—civilian policymakers, military
commanders, intelligence officials—concluded Gitmo was the least-bad option for
detaining enemy combatants. The alternatives—letting America’s sworn enemies loose,
bringing them into the U.S. and according them constitutional protections,
executing them on the battlefield, handing them off to untrustworthy
regimes—were considered self-defeating or contrary to America’s values.
Gitmo, like many other
aspects of the war against jihadism, calls to mind the grim realism of Reinhold
Niebuhr: “We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to
preserve our civilization,” he wrote during an earlier struggle for humanity. Niebuhr
understood that the imperfect means we employ to protect innocents and preserve
order—a judge banishing serial killers to super-max prisons, a president
banishing mass-murderers to Guantanamo Bay, a SWAT team lobbing superheated
flash-bang grenades into a suspected drug house, an airman firing missiles into
a suspected terrorist hideout—are sometimes the only way innocents can be
The Gitmo facility held some
680 detainees at its peak. When Obama took office, there were 242 detainees.
Today, 41 detainees remain at the facility. But President Donald Trump, who bluntly describes the
detainees as “extremely dangerous people” that “should not be allowed back onto
the battlefield,” is poised to reverse that trend. The Trump
administration has prepared an executive order directing the
Defense Department to ready the facility for “detention and trial of newly captured” enemy
As alluded to above, there aren’t any good alternatives to Gitmo. This is
largely a function of the nature of this war and the nature of this enemy.
build support for stateside transfer of detainees, Obama argued, “No person has
ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” However, escape is
not what worries most critics of stateside transfer. What worries them is that
once placed in the U.S. prison system, Gitmo’s lifers will radicalize other
prisoners—something they cannot do from Gitmo. Indeed, al-Qaeda training
manuals instruct captured fighters to “create an Islamic program” inside
prison. Radicalization is a serious
enough problem that Obama’s Department of Homeland Security announced an
initiative to thwart “terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and
recruitment.” Testimony before
House and Senate committees reveals that “up to three dozen Americans who
converted to Islam in prison have travelled to Yemen to train with al Qaeda.”
High-profile terrorists like Jose Padilla and Richard Reid converted to
jihadism while in prison.
Equally important, the American people don’t want America’s sworn enemies
on American soil, which explains why 56 percent of the country
supports keeping the facility open—a higher percentage than during Obama’s
first year in office.
alternative to Gitmo—sending detainees
back to their home countries—proved to be the very definition of
self-defeating: Obama’s DHS reported that
16.9 percent of paroled detainees returned to terrorism, and Obama’s
intelligence agencies assessed that 30 percent of released detainees were confirmed or suspected of returning
realities, it’s no surprise that bipartisan majorities in Congress—including
the Democratic-controlled Congress of 2009-10—repeatedly blocked the Obama administration from closing the
consider what Obama’s defense secretaries
said in reaction to his desire to close the facility:
“There are people in Guantanamo Bay who cannot and should not be released
because they will return to the terrorist fight,” Ashton Carterconceded in 2015 that he was “not confident”
the facility can be closed.
Hagel “refused to sign
certifications that the future threat posed by the prisoners could be
adequately mitigated,” according to published reports.
Leon Panetta expressed“serious concerns” about releasing Gitmo prisoners to their home countries.
called for legislation “preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living
in the United States,” as Reutersreported.
Surely, these men were not engaging in “politics” and had not “abdicated their
responsibility to the American people.”
Proverbs reminds us, “Motives
are weighed by the Lord.” When we consider our neighbor’s motives, we are, in
some small way, imitating God. Only when we stop and think about the motives of
those who disagree with us can we realize that their motives might be good and
sound and just—even when their actions and the outcomes fall short. I believe
Obama’s motives in trying to close Gitmo were to improve America’s image abroad.
It’s sad that, even after eight years in office, he never gave those who
opposed the closure of Gitmo the same benefit of the doubt.