U.S. President Barack Obama stated at a press conference on Tuesday that he would like to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison but said that Congress was to blame for blockading any such action.
However, rights groups are calling Obama's bluff, saying he actually does have the power to transfer detainees and put an end to the indefinite detention, solitary confinement, and torture inherent within the military prison—without the approval of Congress—and that he simply lacks the political courage to do so.
Obama stated Tuesday:
Now Congress determined that they would not let us close it and despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently in Guantanamo who the courts have said could be returned to their country of origin or potentially a third country. . . . And so I'm going to -- as I've said before, we're -- examine every option that we have administratively to try to deal with this issue. But ultimately, we're also going to need some help from Congress.
In response, lawyers for Guantanamo detainees at the Center for Constitutional Rights stated, "We praise the president for re-affirming his commitment to closing the base but take issue with the impression he strives to give that it is largely up to Congress."
Rather than waiting for Congress to make a move on Guantanamo, CCR reports Tuesday that Obama has the autonomy to take a number of actions:
- Congress is certainly responsible for imposing unprecedented restrictions on detainee transfers, but President Obama still has the power to transfer men right now. He should use the certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees, starting with the 86 men who have been cleared for release, including our client Djamel Ameziane.
- Congress may have tied one hand behind his back, but he has tied the other: he should lift his self-imposed moratorium on transfers to Yemen regardless of a detainee's status. It's collective punishment based on citizenship, and needs to be reevaluated now.
- President Obama should appoint a senior government official to shepherd the process of closure, and should give that person sufficient authority to resolve inter-agency disputes.
- The President must demonstrate immediate, tangible progress toward the closure of Guantanamo or the men who are on hunger strike will die, and he will be ultimately responsible for their deaths.
Likewise, the ACLU affirmed Tuesday that Obama holds certain powers to release at least half of the Guantanamo detainees:
There are two things the president should do. One is to appoint a senior point person so that the administration's Guantánamo closure policy is directed by the White House and not by Pentagon bureaucrats. The president can also order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantánamo population.
Carlos Warner, an attorney representing 11 Guantanamo prisoners, said today:
I applaud President Obama’s remarks — he hasn’t mentioned Guantanamo in years — but the fact is that Congress has very little to do with it. NDAA as written allows the President to transfer individuals if it’s in the national security of the United States. The President’s statement made clear that Guantanamo negatively impacts our national security. The question is not whether the administration has the authority to transfer innocent men, but whether it has the political courage to do so.
And writing at the Lawfare Tuesday, Benjamin Wittes adds that Obama's comments on Tuesday are a direct contradiction of his own self imposed policies. Wittes states:
The President’s comments are bewildering because his own policies give rise to the vast majority of the concerns about which he so earnestly delivered himself in these remarks.
Remember that Obama himself has imposed a moratorium on repatriating people to Yemen. And Obama himself has insisted that nearly 50 detainees cannot either be tried or transferred.