So there was the new president, two days following his historic inauguration, signing into law the order to close the Guantanomo Bay prison, ensuring that his administration, in contrast to his predecessor’s, would “ restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism.”
A certain euphoria accompanied the signing of the three executive orders that day – given that they fulfilled a heavily peddled campaign promise. Obama was giving notice that the new administration would no longer sanction indefinite detention of foreign nationals without trial and that the torture sanctioned by the Bush Administration, which had left an indelible stain on the nation, would be expunged.
It was of course a great deal easier to sign that executive order than it was to actually close down the prison. For two years the administration has embarrassingly attempted to find a solution to the most obvious and glaring question posed by the potential closure: where to put the prisoners. According to every report and inquiry received by the new administration these guys were dangerous – lethally so – and no state in the Union seemed overly eager to receive them.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement on November 13, 2009 that five of the Guantanomo inmates, including 9/11 mastermind Khald Sheikh Mohammed, would be remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for trial raised an outcry from that city and across the nation. Exactly one year later when Ahmed Ghailani, tried on 280 counts of murder and conspiracy to murder in the Kobar Towers attack in 1998 was acquitted of all but one of the charges leveled against him, the Administration began to see how bad things could go. “Imagine,” they must have said to themselves, “if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was able to walk free because of a technicality – what would it do to us and our reputation?”
In December 2010, Congress answered that question for them. On December 22nd it passed legislation effectively barring transfer of detainees to the U.S. for trial.
And so now, after twenty-two months of twiddling thumbs and attempting to find an answer to the increasingly intractable problem, the Obama Administration has not only decided to keep Guantanomo open, but is now resorting to the Bush inspired decision of trying them there in military tribunals.
So the Gulag remains and the Bush era policies for detaining terrorists and trying them as prisoners of war are essentially retained.
Such sloppy, unsophisticated policy making deserves the ridicule with which the Administration is now being lacerated. Obama is learning the hard way that it is far easier to make election promises that obtain great political mileage than it is to fulfill them – particularly when absolutely no thought has been given to how to do so.
He might be finally appreciating that the man and administration he has spent four years vilifying might actually have got it right – a lesson history could soon also be teaching many Americans – grown nostalgic for the good old days of decisive leadership.