restricted access Current U.S. Policy
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13 1 Current U.S. Policy By the end of Barack Obama’s first year in office, the new president’s promise to close Guantánamo had become an albatross around his neck. In numerical terms, at least, he had made relatively little progress toward emptying the facility. His muchvaunted order to bring detainees to trial had produced only a single indictment in federal court. Military commission proceedings moved forward at the pace of a glacier—and, as they always had, involved only a small percentage of detainees. Diplomatic negotiations regarding the repatriation and resettlement of detainees progressed intermittently. A process that in the exuberance of the transition and the first days of his administration the president had promised to finish within a year would drag out indefinitely. What’s more, the project itself had become controversial, with Republicans discovering an ideological commitment to Guantánamo and rallying behind it. Magnifying the ranks of the opposition was NIMBYism in Congress, where many members felt far less strongly about the underlying issues associated with detention than about the need to make sure that detainees came nowhere near their districts. Moreover, Congress slapped a series of restrictions on the president’s latitude in resolving detainee cases. New laws barred him from bringing detainees to the United States except for criminal trial and required a waiting period and extensive congressional notifications before the administration could 01-0491-1 ch1.indd 13 10/14/10 6:11 PM 14   Detention and Denial ship any detainee abroad. The glib slogan “Close Guantánamo” had, for the first time, met its political match: a fierce commitment on the part of a broad political constituency to not merely maintaining detention operations but to doing so at that particular naval base. That was a big change over a remarkably short period of time. George W. Bush, who created the facility, had long said that he would like to be able to close it, and his administration had worked assiduously to shrink it, ultimately removing more than 500 of the nearly 800 detainees who had ever been held there. During the 2008 general election campaign, closing Guantánamo had been a matter of political consensus between the two presidential candidates. Senator John McCain, like Senator Obama, promised to shutter the facility. Even during the primaries, the press had largely treated Mitt Romney’s promise to double Guant ánamo’s size not as a serious proposal but as mere political pandering to the hard right, and the idea never availed Romney much as a candidate in any event. The slogan “Close Guantánamo ” reflected the endpoint of a policy on which a vast swath of the political spectrum agreed, and that swath also agreed, in broad strokes, on the means: freeing detainees for whom arrangements could be made that did not involve continued U.S. custody, trying detainees who could be brought to trial, and winnowing down the population as much as possible without taking undue security risks. Yet the slogan also carried an unhealthy degree of ambiguity, for neither Obama nor McCain ever said quite what he meant by it. The promise to close Guantánamo, like many political promises , conveyed different meanings to different constituencies— people heard in it what they wanted to hear. To many of those on the political left, for example, closure signaled abandonment of noncriminal detention and, more generally, a return to the law enforcement model of counterterrorism operations. To those concerned with harmony in U.S. transatlantic relations, it signaled 01-0491-1 ch1.indd 14 10/14/10 6:11 PM Current U.S. Policy   15 a meeting of minds with Europe over a festering sore in our ties with our closest allies. And to many people offended by a detention site chosen specifically to evade the jurisdiction and scrutiny of federal courts—a problem that those same courts had already addressed—it signaled a re-embrace of the rule of law and an abandonment of a kind of offshore-banking model of counterterrorism detention. The phrase “Close Guantánamo” can mean any of those things. It also can mean none of them. Indeed, the promise to close Guantánamo, which Obama and McCain both embraced, actually concerned only a single detention facility. Neither candidate promised to abandon noncriminal detention more broadly, to free everyone who could not be charged with a crime in a federal court, or to bring other overseas detention facilities under the purview of U.S. judges. Technically...


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