No Thanks, Obama and McCain. Continuing Indefinite Detention Isn’t Closing Guantánamo.

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No Thanks, Obama and McCain. Continuing Indefinite Detention Isn’t Closing Guantánamo.

At this year's rally and march in Washington, D.C. to protest the 14th year of Guantanamo torture and indefinite detention. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

A bad idea doesn’t somehow become a good idea just because five years have gone by.  But the Obama White House and Sen. John McCain seem ready to recycle a proposal that was overwhelmingly rejected in 2010.

President Obama has renewed his commitment to closing Guantánamo before he leaves office, and McCain (R-Ariz.) said he might be able to support closure. However, there has always been a right way and a wrong way to close Guantánamo. The restrictions the Senate has passed, along with the latest proposal floated by the White House to move some detainees to the United States for indefinite detention without charge or trial, is the wrong way.

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Guantánamo has never been just about the prison. Instead, Guantánamo has been about our government violating the rule of law and ducking American values. From torture and abuse during the Bush administration to indefinite detention and defective military commissions extending through the Bush and Obama administrations, Guantánamo has been a place where our government behaves like a human rights pariah instead of a human rights beacon.

The solution can never be to simply pack up both the detainees and bad policies at Guantánamo and ship them to some new prison here in the United States. No. The only meaningful solution is to close Guantánamo by ending indefinite detention without charge or trial, transferring the detainees who have been cleared for transfer,  and trying detainees for whom there is evidence of wrongdoing in our federal criminal courts in the U.S., which regularly try terrorism suspects, including high-profile ones.

But instead of doing the hard work of closing Guantánamo the right way, the Obama White House is reportedly dusting off the same plan that Congress overwhelmingly rejected in 2010. The “plan” would involve transferring overseas all cleared detainees (an excellent idea, but one that actually needs to be completed now, not when this “plan” goes into effect), but then setting up prisons in the U.S. to continue the indefinite detention of men who have been imprisoned for more than a decade without ever being charged with any crime. Other detainees would be put on trial — but some of them would be tried before the same unfair military commissions used at Guantánamo. The result would be moving Guantanamo, not closing it.

McCain has a hand in it too. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he sponsored the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, which would allow indefinite detention and military commissions to be brought to the U.S. as part of closing Guantánamo — but only if both houses of Congress approve the president’s plan. Of course, anything requiring both houses of Congress to approve almost anything from the president is a political non-starter. But this provision is still being sold as a step towards closing Guantánamo.

A particularly bizarre bit of news about the White House plan this week came in a Washington Post report that said that the White House was considering setting up a nearly empty prison in Thomson, Illinois, as a site for indefinite detention of Guantánamo detainees. This exact same plan, with the exact same prison in Illinois, was rejected by a House vote of 353-69 in 2010. Then Attorney General Eric Holder later swore that the Thomson prison would never be used for that purpose. 

The ACLU said back in 2009 that shipping indefinite detention north was the wrong way to close Guantánamo, and it still is the wrong way to close Guantánamo. Bad ideas don’t get better by just sitting on the shelf. It’s time to close Guantánamo the right way, by charging in federal court any detainee who can be charged and ending indefinite detention for everyone else. If a prosecutor can’t put together a case against someone who has been sitting in prison for as long as 13 years, there is no reason that person should continue to sit in prison, whether in Guantánamo or someplace else.

Let’s close it the right way.

Chris Anders

Chris Anders is Senior Legislative Counsel in the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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