Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Broken Promise
America's Next Guantanamo

By David G. Young

Washington DC, October 20, 2009 --  

President Obama is breaking his promise to close down the abusive system at Guantanamo. The reason is far more self-serving than he would have you believe.

With Americans busy debating whether President Obama deserved Nobel Peace Prize, relatively little attention is being paid to a far more important question: will the world's newest Nobel peace laureate deserve to be tried at the Hague?

Obama's crime, like that of his predecessor, is the continued imprisonment without charge of hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And while one of the president's first acts was to promise to close the facility within a year1, he recently made it abundantly clear that this is a promise he intends to break.

Last month, the president began sending his deputies around, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, to tell the public that the president wouldn't meet the deadline.2,3 Far more disturbing, however, is the Justice Department's announcement that it intends to continue the Bush-era policy of indefinite detention of Guantanamo inmates without trial.4 This means that even if Guantanamo is ultimately closed, it will amount to nothing more than a relocation -- the same abuses of civil rights will continue.

Instead of alleged terrorists being secretively held at a military base in Cuba, they will be secretively held at a military base or federal prison inside the United States. Either way, many will be denied the right to trial. These plans make a mockery of the idea of closing Guantanamo. It is yet another Obama administration elevation of symbol over substance, a pattern that has rightfully earned the Obama administration bitter criticism from America's right-wing.

Why on earth would the Obama Administration break its Guantanamo closure promise? The administration says it has had a difficult time with detainees that they "cannot release and cannot try," in the words of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.5 They claim these dangerous detainees can't be tried in court because the evidence against them is inadmissible due to extraction from torture, or would compromise secret intelligence.

These arguments are utter nonsense, and reminiscent of the worst of Bush-era secretive policies now embraced by the Obama administration. If a suspected terrorist is really so dangerous, isn't it worth revealing secret intelligence to put him away? And if it isn't worth it, then the suspect must not be so dangerous after all. Similarly, if the only evidence against a detainee was extracted through torture, then is it really believable enough to keep him indefinitely imprisoned?

Obams's defenders also argue that his actions on Guantanamo have been limited by Congressional friction. This is not without truth -- Republicans and NIMBY Democrats have repeatedly put up obstacles to the relocation of detainees in the United States. But while this is certainly an inconvenience to closing Guantanamo, the president does retain veto power (should he choose to exercise it), and could have chosen to transfer the detainees by executive order on his first day in office.

In reality, there is a far more cynical (and believable) reason that the Obama administration has taken this shameful approach. With its health care reform plans on the rocks, Obama simply does not wish to expend the political capital needed to follow through with its promise to end the civil rights abuses at Guantanamo. As a result, he has decided to punt.

While this may sound like a pragmatic approach, consider that the kidnapping and involuntary detention of foreign nationals without due process constitutes a gross violation of civil liberties at best and a war crime at worst -- one that may one day see America's leaders indicted by the International Criminal Court.6 We all know that America's health care system is imperfect, but is it really so bad that it justifies violating civil liberties and perpetuating war crimes in order to enact a modest reform of dubious benefit?

If there were real justice in this world, this would not be a question for me to answer. This would be a question for Obama and his Bush administration predecessors to answer before the International Criminal Court in the Hague. None of these leaders are ever likely to stand trial, but the shame that indictment would create, along with the loss of the freedom to travel to Europe, would be a far more deserving result for Obama than a hollow Nobel Prize.

Related Web Columns:

Shameless Politics
The Politicization of Human Rights
, June 7, 2005

Shameless Politics
The Politicization of Human Rights
, October 12, 2004


1. New York Times, Obama Issues Directive to Shut Down Guantanamo, January 21, 2009

2. Fox News, AG Holder: Effort to Close Gitmo by January Deadline Will be Difficult, October 6, 2009

3. Bloomberg News, Gates Says U.S. May Not Close Guantanamo Prison by Deadline, September 27, 2009

4. National Public Radio, Obama Keeps Bush Rules On Indefinite Detention, September 26, 2009

5. BBC News, US to limit Guantanamo releases, April 30, 2009

6. Journal of International Criminal Justice, Rethinking Guantanamo, Unlawful Confinement as Applied in International Criminal Law, 2006