What Excuse Remains for Obama’s Failure to Close GITMO?

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The Intercept

What Excuse Remains for Obama’s Failure to Close GITMO?

Individuals and organizations like Witness Against Torture and the Center for Constitutional Rights have never wavered in their demand that Obama close the offshore prison in Guantanamo and put an end to the practice of indefinite detention. (Image: CCR)

The excuse-making on behalf of President Obama has always found its most extreme form when it came time to explain why he failed to fulfill his oft-stated 2008 election promise to close Guantanamo. As I’ve documented many times, even the promise itself was misleading, as it became quickly apparent that Obama — even in the absence of congressional obstruction — did not intend to “close GITMO” at all but rather to re-locate it, maintaining its defining injustice of indefinite detention.

But the events of the last three days have obliterated the last remaining excuse. In order to secure the release of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration agreed to release from Guantanamo five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban. But as even stalwart Obama defenders such as Jeffery Toobin admit, Obama “clearly broke the law” by releasing those detainees without providing Congress the 30-day notice required by the 2014 defense authorization statute (law professor Jonathan Turley similarly observed that Obama’s lawbreaking here was clear and virtually undebatable).

The only conceivable legal argument to justify this release is if the Obama White House argues that the law does not and cannot bind them. As documented by MSNBC’s Adam Serwer - who acknowledges that “when it comes to the legality of the decision [critics] have a point” – Obama has suggested in the past when issuing signing statements that he does not recognize the validity of congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantanamo detainees because these are decisions assigned by the Constitution solely to the commander-in-chief (sound familiar?). Obama’s last signing statement concluded with this cryptic vow: “In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees in sections 1034 and 1035 operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”

Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?

Both Serwer and a new Washington Post article this morning note the gross and obvious hypocrisy of Obama and his Democratic loyalists now using Article-II-über-alles signing statements to ignore congressionally enacted laws relating to the War on Terror. Quoting an expert on signing statements, the Post – referencing Obama’s Bush-era condemnation of signing statements — sums up much of the last six years of political events in the US: “Senator Obama had a very different view than President Obama.”

But the eagerness of many Democrats to radically change everything they claimed to believe as of January 20, 2009 is far too familiar and well-documented at this point to be worth spending much time on. Far more significant are the implications for Obama’s infamously unfulfilled pledge to close Guantanamo.

The sole excuse now offered by Democratic loyalists for this failure has been that Congress prevented him from closing the camp. But here, the Obama White House appears to be arguing that Congress lacks the authority to constrain the President’s power to release detainees when he wants. What other excuse is there for his clear violation of a law that requires 30-day notice to Congress before any detainees are released?

But once you take the position that Obama can override — i.e., ignore — Congressional restrictions on his power to release Guantanamo detainees, then what possible excuse is left for his failure to close the camp? As Jason Leopold notes in an astute article at Al Jazeera, this week’s episode “has led one human rights organization to question why the Obama administration has not acted to transfer dozens of other detainees who have been cleared for release for many years.” He added:

Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First, told Al Jazeera if the administration can make the argument that the five Taliban detainees are transferrable “without any significant problems under the congressionally imposed transfer restrictions” then certainly “the same argument can be made for the detainees who have already been cleared for release.”

Obama defenders seem to have two choices here: either the president broke the law in releasing these five detainees, or Congress cannot bind the commander-in-chief’s power to transfer detainees when he wants, thus leaving Obama free to make those decisions himself. Which is it?

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.