President Obama has suddenly rediscovered that there are still about 130 men being held, without charge, in horrible conditions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is good that the President has been aroused from his indefinite inattention, but neither the prisoners, habeas counsel nor those in the public who care about this issue should get overly excited. All of the men being held at Gitmo now, the day of the President's awakening, were there when he took office in his first term.
Many of the President's supporters say that Congress got in his way and prevented him from closing the notorious prison camp. It's true that the President signed an executive order in his first few days in office indicating his desire to close the prison camp. It's also true that the Congress immediately introduced legislation that restricted the President's hand in many ways in what he could do in terms of bringing the prisoners here to stand trial in federal court. However, the President's supposed helplessness at the hands of the Republican Congress gives one pause and requires a look at the facts as he now has indicated, five years later, that he still wants to close the prison.
The conventional line in mainstream and even supposed left-leaning media outlets is that Congress thwarted the President's efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay after he signed the executive order mandating the closure of the prison. This is only partly true. The President most certainly did sign an executive order, thus at least appearing to fulfill a campaign promise to close Gitmo. However, simply closing Gitmo was never the issue. For the prisoners themselves and for most habeas counsel who represent the men and boys being detained there, the issue was not simply closing the prison. The goal for them was to have all of the men being held there to be released or given trials. This was something very different from what the President was offering.
The White House's plan was to shutter the doors of the prison camp, but then to transfer the prisoners to a closed and underutilized prison in Illinois. As I wrote in a piece for Truthout.org called "Transfer is Not Justice," the President's plan was to physically close the prison at Guantanamo, and then reopen it and its atrocities and lawlessness on American soil. The President's idea was to close Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and open Guantanamo Bay, Illinois. The "closure" of Gitmo would thus have been largely symbolic since the reality and illegality of indefinite detention for the prisoners would have remained unchanged.
The defenders of the President argue that he had no choice but to keep the camp open because Congress tied his hands by enacting legislation that effectively prevented him from closing it. However, the way the American system of enacting legislation works is that Congress passes a bill and then that bill goes to the President for his signature. However, the President is under no obligation to sign the bill and, in fact, he could veto it. President Obama didn't veto the bill; he signed it. In fact, as word of Congress' proposed bill was winding its way through the committees, President Obama could have told Congress, before the bill ever hit his desk, that he would veto it if it prevented him from carrying out his executive order. That didn't happen, and as stated, he signed it. The President signed the legislation that "tied his hands" without a presidential veto and without even the threat of one. Therefore, no credible argument can be made that he did not agree with the legislation or that he ever really intended to close Guantanamo.
Some may argue that he signed "signing statements" that expressed the President's intentions and interpretations of the law passed by Congress. However, signing statements are not law. Legislation is law. Signing statements are not a veto of Congressional actions; a veto is. Of course, had the President vetoed the legislation, Congress could have overridden the veto by a two-thirds majority vote. The President's hero, Ronald Reagan, vetoed the bill that would have imposed sanctions on the racist, apartheid government in South Africa. This action showed unequivocally where Reagan stood on supporting an anti-black, murderous, apartheid government. But, he stood his ground and "vetoed" his conscience. Congress eventually over-rode his veto, but at least he took a stand. President Obama did not do this with Guantanamo. He didn't fight for the closure of it and therefore the only logical interpretation of his inaction is that he didn't care enough about the issue to do so. Reagan cared more about supporting racists then Obama did about supporting justice.
Guantanamo Bay, with its history of torture, suicides, and indefinite detention, remains open going into the second term of this President's presidency, and it is clear that the only reason it has garnered the attention of the President now is because the prisoners themselves forced the media and the White House to pay attention by going on their hunger strike. Therefore, neither the President nor the media should get credit for rediscovering this human rights disaster, when, in reality, the issue was forced upon them.
The President's flowery words should get even less praise, because the prisoners don't need flowers or words, they need action. President Obama has offered very little in the way of specifics on what he intends to do about the fate of the prisoners now that they are back on radar. Currently, he is allowing the hunger strikers to be force fed because he wants them to stay alive. First, force feeding is painful and inhumane and itself could be considered torture. But, second, why does he want them to stay alive? So that he can score points with progressives? Or so the next President can deal with them? What exactly is the President actually going to do to free the approximately 90 prisoners who have been cleared for release and the others who have not yet been charged or tried? He is not specific on these issues now, nor has he ever been. He has been clear on his "desire" to close the camp, but he has done little in five years to fulfill that desire.
Force feeding men who want to die rather than remain locked up for 10 years without charge or trial thousands of miles away from their homes is evidence of the President's inaction over the first term of his presidency as well as his continuation of a system that has dehumanized these men to the point of mass suicide. It appears likely that had the prisoners not taken their fate into their own hands, their fates would have remained in the hands of a President and a media establishment that had washed those hands of them and literally consigned those men to that "black hole" that the Bush administration had initially planned for them. In the final analysis, despite what one thinks of suicide, the prisoners have shown more courage and have taken a more definite approach to their situation than has President Obama.