Obama’s prison: last-ditch push to close Guantanamo

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama’s new Guantanamo envoy has 18 months to close the infamous prison. Lee Wolosky will face election-year politics and a deeply skeptical Congress. Mission impossible? Spencer Kimball reports.

He was inaugurated on a Tuesday. The following Thursday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Leading Republicans and Democrats agreed that the prison had become a propaganda tool for America’s enemies and a distraction to her allies. The plan was to shut Guantanamo down within a year.

But a president sets priorities and the candidate of change had more immediate concerns. The economy was a wreck and nearly 50 million Americans had no health insurance. After Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, they refused to allocate money to close Guantanamo.

Six years and two special envoys later, the detention facility remains open. Last Tuesday, the administration appointed Lee Wolosky as the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure. The position had been vacant for six months.

Wolosky, an attorney, was the director of Transnational Threats under the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration. John Bellinger, who served on President Bush’s National Security Council, has known Wolosky for two decades.

“Lee Wolosky has experience inside Washington with counterterrorism on the White House staff and ought to be able to – if anyone can – persuade a very skeptical Republican Congress that he and the president have a plan to close Guantanamo,” Bellinger told DW.

‘Obama’s prison’

But Omar Shakir has his fair share of doubts about whether the White House remains committed to closing Guantanamo. Shakir works for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents 10 detainees.

“They’ve spoken about closing Guantanamo repeatedly, but they’ve not shown the willingness to expend the political capital to make that happen,” Shakir told DW.

“That means putting together a coherent plan for Guantanamo and realizing that they have the power to release all the men that have been cleared,” he said.

When President Obama assumed office, there were 242 Guantanamo detainees. Progress has been made in fits and starts. The number of detainees has been reduced to 116. More than 50 of them have been cleared for release.

In June, six Yemenis were transferred to Oman. They were the first detainees released after a five-month pause, precipitated by the resignation of Wolosky’s predecessor, Clifford Sloan.

“By January 2016, the men in Guantanamo will have been detained under President Obama for more time than they were detained under President Bush,” Shakir said. “So this is really becoming President Obama’s prison.”

Resistance at every turn

Bellinger believes the president’s hands are largely tied. Not only has Congress repeatedly denied the White House funds for transferring detainees to a facility in the United States, it has also placed restrictions on resettling those cleared for release to third-party countries.

“Congress would have to affirmatively change the law to allow the president to close Guantanamo,” Bellinger said.

Last month, the Senate passed a defense spending bill that contained more restrictions on transferring detainees. But the legislation also promises an up or down vote on closing Guantanamo if the secretary of defense presents a plan to do so. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has stated publicly that he’s working with the White House to develop such a plan.

Though critical of the Obama administration for not demonstrating resolve, Shakir does believe the president wants to close the facility. But Obama has faced resistance at virtually every turn and not just from Congress.

“There are other forces in this administration, including the Defense Department, that continue to impede transfers and impose restrictions on this administration,” Shakir said. “The challenge for this envoy will be to work through the Defense Department and allow transfers to take place.”

‘Permanent prison’

But it might be too late. President Obama has just 18 months left to accomplish what he’s failed to do for six years. Though Obama is no longer on the ballot, his colleagues on other side of the aisle are gearing up for the 2016 presidential election.

“Republican members of Congress are going to be reluctant to vote to move terror suspects into the United States in an election year,” Bellinger said.

That means there is a very real possibility the president, a constitutional lawyer, will not fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close Guantanamo, passing the issue on to his successor. Shakir fears that the prison facility and the practice of indefinite detention without charge or trial could become “entrenched” in the American legal system.

“To Obama’s credit, he hasn’t brought new detainees to Guantanamo,” Shakir said. “But there’s a risk of a new president coming to power and Guantanamo remaining the kind of permanent prison for the unfavored detainees of the hour.”

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