As he left the White House, President Barack Obama left behind a number of surprises for 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.
First, it 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 protected.
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 combatants.
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.
Trying to 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.
Another 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 to terrorism.
Given these 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 prison.
Moreover, consider what Obama’s defense secretaries said in reaction to his desire to close the facility:
- Concluding “There are people in Guantanamo Bay who cannot and should not be released because they will return to the terrorist fight,” Ashton Carter conceded in 2015 that he was “not confident” the facility can be closed.
- Chuck 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.
- Robert Gates called for legislation “preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States,” as Reuters reported.
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.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose (www.sagamoreinstitute.org/cap
Photo Credit: U.S. Army soldiers stand guard on a cell block inside Camp Five at the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention center on Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Nov. 14, 2006. Camp Five is one of six camps that comprise the detention center and has been built with many features that can be found in many maximum-security prisons in the United States. Camp Five is where the most non-compliant and hostile detainees are held.