War on Terror

The Appropriate Persistence of Guantanamo

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The New York Times reports that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which President Obama promised to do by January 22 (i.e., one month from now), will not happen "until 2011 at the earliest." Although the Obama administration finally has picked a place to keep the Guantanamo detainees who won't be released—an empty state prison in Illinois—it does not have the money to buy the prison. Once it has the money, which it plans to seek in the fiscal 2011 military appropriations bill, "it could take 8 to 10 months to install new fencing, towers, cameras and other security upgrades before any transfers take place."

You could argue that the delay does not really matter, since closing Guantanamo is a symbolic move. Then again, you could argue that the timing is everything, since Obama was trying to signal a swift, decisive break from his predecessor's detention policies. The longer he delays, the clearer it will become that the symbolism is empty.

The prison's location was significant because the Bush administration picked it in the expectation that it would be beyond the reach of American courts. Since the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise, moving the prison to the U.S. will not make any legal difference. What matters now is the process the Obama administration uses to decide who will be detained and for how long. Already we know that some detainees will be tried in civilian court, some by military tribunals, and some not at all. In addition to keeping some people locked up indefinitely without trial, the administration reserves the right to continue imprisoning defendants even after they are acquitted. In light of those two policies, holding civilian trials for some terrorism suspects (something the Bush administration also did) and tightening the evidence rules for military tribunals do not seem like major advances for due process. So it's appropriate that Obama will be stuck with Guantanamo, the physical manifestation of Bush's disregard for civil liberties, for a lot longer than he anticipated.

In January I argued that "Guantanamo is not so much a place as a state of mind." In February I noted that "President Obama may close Guantanamo, but the policy it represents will continue." In July I commented on "Obama's empty promise of due process for terrorism suspects."