President Obama on Closing Guantánamo


Code Pink activists use a photo of President Obama, and his own words, to make a powerful point about the need to close Guantanamo outside the White House on May 10, 2013 (Photo: Pat Benic/UPI).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

A week before Christmas, at a press conference, President Obama spoke about Guantánamo, and we wanted to make sure that our supporters know exactly what he said, as it is significant for the coming year — Obama’s last in office — to know what he has planned, and what he thinks of the opposition to his plans in Congress, where Republicans have been imposing restrictions on his ability to release prisoners and to close the prison for most of his presidency, including a ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland for any reason.

Below are President Obama’s comments, interspersed with our commentary. We hope you find it useful. The president’s comments came in response to a question by the journalist David Jackson.

David Jackson: Thank you, Mr. President. A Gitmo question. Congress has made it pretty clear that they’re just not going to let you transfer prisoners to the United States for trial. But some people think you already have the executive authority to transfer those prisoners and close Gitmo itself next year. My question is, do you believe you have that authority and are you willing to exercise it to close that place?

The President: Well, first of all, we’ve been working systematically — another example of persistence — in reducing the population. We have a review process. Those who are eligible for transfer we locate in countries that have accepted some of these detainees. They monitor them, and it’s been determined that they can be transferred. And my expectation is by early next year, we should have reduced that population below 100. And we will continue to steadily chip away at the numbers in Guantánamo.

WE SAY: We are glad that President Obama spoke about the men approved for release and the efforts to release them. There are, however, 48 men approved for release out of the 107 men still held, and 37 of these men were approved for release six years ago by the Guantánamo Review Task Force that the president established shortly after he first took office in January 2009. Holding men for so long who have been approved for release is unforgivable, as we have repeatedly made clear. We also hope that the recent mentions in the mainstream media of 17 releases in the new year will turn out to be true.

The other 11 men approved for release had their cases reviewed in the last two years by Periodic Review Boards, established to review the cases of everyone not already approved for release or facing a trial (and there are just ten men in this latter category). The PRBs have had an astonishing success rate for the prisoners — 15 out of 18 men’s cases reviewed to date have ended with recommendations for their release (a success rate of 83%), but the process is moving far too slowly. 43 men are currently awaiting reviews, as explained in our definitive PRB list, published at the start of December, and at the current rate these will not be completed until long after Obama leaves office. The president therefore needs to do all in his power to speed up the reviews in 2016.

The President: There’s going to come to a point where we have an irreducible population — people who pose a significant threat, but for various reasons, it’s difficult for us to try them in an Article III court. Some of those folks are going through a military commission process. But there’s going to be a challenge there.

Now, at that stage, I’m presenting a plan to Congress about how we can close Guantánamo. I’m not going to automatically assume that Congress says no. I’m not being coy, David. I think it’s fair to say that there’s going to be significant resistance from some quarters to that.  But I think we can make a very strong argument that it doesn’t make sense for us to be spending an extra $100 million, $200 million, $300 million, $500 million, a billion dollars, to have a secure setting for 50, 60, 70 people.  And we will wait until Congress has definitively said no to a well-thought-out plan with numbers attached to it before we say anything definitive about my executive authority here.  I think it’s far preferable if I can get stuff done with Congress.

WE SAY: It is not just for reasons of justice that President Obama needs to speed up the PRB process. His talk of people who cannot be tried should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who respects the rule of law, as it appears to endorse the policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial that has existed at Guantánamo since it opened in January 2002. However, we recognize that, according to the laws of war, President Obama has the right to hold people until the end of hostilities. As a result, he is entitled to transfer prisoners to the US mainland to be held without charge or trial, but the prisoners will have constitutional rights denied to them at Guantánamo, and will be able to launch new lawsuits that, we believe, will severely challenge the supposed justification for their ongoing imprisonment.

As “Close Guantánamo” co-founder Tom Wilner has explained, “If the detainees are brought to the United States, the government loses its prime argument for denying them constitutional rights. The imprisonment of anyone without charge or trial on the US mainland is radically at odds with any concept of constitutional due process. Bringing them to the United States means that they would almost certainly have full constitutional rights and the ability to effectively challenge their detentions in court. They would then no longer be dependent solely on the largesse of the Obama administration, or whatever administration happens to follow it, but could gain relief through the courts.”

David Jackson: So actually you could — right — [close Guantánamo] on your own?

The President: David, as I said — and I think you’ve seen me on a whole bunch of issues like immigration — I’m not going to be forward-leaning on what I can do without Congress before I’ve tested what I can do with Congress. And every once in a while, they’ll surprise you, and this may be one of those places — because I think we can make a really strong argument. Guantánamo continues to be one of the key magnets for jihadi recruitment.

To Roberta [Rampton]’s question earlier about how do they propagandize and convince somebody here in the United States who may not have a criminal record or a history of terrorist activity to start shooting — this is part of what they feed, this notion of a gross injustice, that America is not living up to its professed ideals. We know that. We see the Internet traffic. We see how Guantánamo has been used to create this mythology that America is at war with Islam. And for us to close it is part of our counterterrorism strategy that is supported by our military, our diplomatic, and our intelligence teams.

So when you combine that with the fact that it’s really expensive that we are essentially at this point detaining a handful of people and each person is costing several million dollars to detain, when there are more efficient ways of doing it, I think we can make a strong argument.

But I’ll take your point that it will be an uphill battle. Now, every battle I’ve had with Congress over the last five years has been uphill. But we keep on surprising you by actually getting some stuff done. Sometimes that may prove necessary, but we try not to get out ahead of ourselves on that.

WE SAY: President Obama is correct to call Guantánamo “one of the key magnets for jihadi recruitment.” In our mission statement, when we founded “Close Guantánamo” in 2012, we quoted President Obama, in a speech in early 2009, stating that, “instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantánamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” We also agree with the president about the outrageous cost of Guantánamo, and as we also stated in our mission statement, we believe that Guantánamo “undermines our bedrock commitment to the rule of law, making that fundamental principle less secure for all Americans.”

We also hope, of course, that President Obama will be able to close Guantánamo with the support of Congress, and we remember that, back in May 2013, in a major speech on national security at the National Archives, he said, of Guantánamo, “there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.”

However, we are prepared for Congress to fail to cooperate with the president, and we bear in mind the op-ed in the Washington Post in November by Greg Craig, who was White House Counsel in 2009, and Cliff Sloan, the envoy for Guantánamo closure in the State Department from 2013-14, entitled, “The president doesn’t need Congress’s permission to close Guantánamo.” Craig and Sloan wrote, “Some maintain that the congressional ban on transfers from Guantánamo to the United States prevents closure without congressional approval. But that is wrong. Under Article II of the Constitution, the president has exclusive authority to determine the facilities in which military detainees are held. Obama has the authority to move forward. He should use it.”

What you can do now

To ask President Obama to speed up the release of prisoners from Guantánamo, and the Periodic Review Boards, call the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online.

You can also call the Department of Defense and ask Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to speed up prisoner releases and the PRB process on 703-571-3343.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

21 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When i posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Happy New Year! As we see out 2015, here’s my last article of the year, looking at the comments about ‪‎Guantanamo‬ that President Obama made at a recent press conference. He needs, urgently, to free the 48 men approved for release, and to speed up reviews for 45 other “forever prisoners.” Cross-posted from Close Guantanamo, the campaign I launched four years ago with US lawyer Tom Wilner. Tom and I, with your support, hopefully, will be working hard in 2016 to try and make sure Obama can close the prison before he leaves office.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    “We are glad that President Obama spoke about the men approved for release and the efforts to release them.”

    LOL. Really? So happy to be pumped full of lies, as usual. Some people have strange kicks.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s not really fair, Tashi. He is releasing prisoners, and the Periodic Review Boards are ongoing, but both are taking place too slowly.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Oh my, Andy. Really! Think carefully about what you are saying. If the man can order murders — why can’t he close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp?

    While you think this over — read this please. Do you really believe he is helpless?

    You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy. You have authorized kill teams comprised of both soldiers from Special Forces and civilians from the CIA, and you have coordinated their efforts through the Departments of Justice and State. You have gradually withdrawn from the nation building required by “counterinsurgency” and poured resources into the covert operations that form the basis of “counter-terrorism.” More than any other president you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with “nighttime” raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi, I’m really not condoning his inaction, as you should know. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now! But it’s become a political minefield. He should have spoken out more often and more insistently about how the Republicans have been lying and distorting the truth about Guantanamo, and he should have got people to help who could point out why it’s so outrageous for almost everyone held at Guantanamo to continue to be held, but he didn’t. He has to send these men somewhere. Most are Yemenis, and everyone in power in the US sadly seems to agree that it’s simply not acceptable to send any Yemenis home, so third countries have to be found – and yes, yet again, Obama showed his weakness when he backed down in the face of Republican opposition from bringing any wrongfully detained prisoners to live in the US (as was planned for some of the Uighurs).
    He was also told by his advisers – and yes, he could have paid more attention himself, but he didn’t – that around 60 of those still held are too dangerous to release. The PRBs are establishing – slowly – that that is wrong, but politically, pragmatically, he has no magic wand to free these men, as, again, most of them are Yemenis, and third countries must be found that will take them in – and they need competent files assessing who they are for receiving governments to work with.
    I could go on and on, bit I hope you get where I’m coming from. I’m not condoning his inaction, I’m supporting him as his last year in office begins. I don’t think he’s shown strong leadership on Guantanamo at all – and that’s without even getting into my feelings about his other foreign policy failures – like the use of drones, for example.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    *He can bypass when it suits*

    There’s one more reason I think the question of OBL’s killing was more uncertain than laid out here. Savage reveals that even though lawyers had authorized not telling Congress about the raid, Leon Panetta did so on his own anyway.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    *If he really wanted to — he would*

    The Pentagon’s slow pace in approving transfers was a factor in President Obama’s decision to remove Hagel in February, former administration officials said. And in September, amid continuing Pentagon delays, President Obama upbraided Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in a one-on-one meeting, according to administration officials briefed on the encounter.

    Since then, the Pentagon has been more cooperative. Administration officials said they expect to begin transferring at least 17 detainees to foreign countries in January.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, and Tashi, citing comments about obstruction in the Pentagon only reinforces my position, rather than detracting from it. Obama has to work with people who won’t work with him properly – in Congress, in the Pentagon, in other parts of his own administration.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Andy, as your friend, any kind of support of Obama baffles me. Guantanamo began on the premise of many lies.
    I know — what I am trying to demonstrate by citing that article is the lie that is perpetuated! How is it he can exact his will at times and not others? It’s simple logic. He along with the whole political machine benefit from Guantanamo being open. Don’t let yourself be deceived.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    What’s going on here? These aren’t executive orders put in place by a previous president which can now simply be signed away. Most of these restrictions were passed by Congress. The State Department lists many of these restrictions on their travel web site and they are formidable. The Treasury Department reminds people that spending American money in Cuba as a tourist can result in up to a $65,000 fine.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi, you keep quoting a lot of dangerous right-wing sources, which isn’t helpful – especially about alleged executive overreach, which these Republicans love when it’s their own doing it (please check out Dick Cheney and his love of the unitary executive theory). But mainly I don’t see a monolithic presidency that necessarily makes overall sense. There are all sorts of contradictions. So Obama happily kills al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son, but has tied himself in knots – or allowed himself to be tied in knots – about Guantanamo. I stand by my detailed comments to you above about why he hasn’t closed it – the politics, the need for reviews, the need for third countries to have detailed files on Yemenis they’re being asked to give new homes to, Obama’s persistent cowardice in the face of Republican opposition, especially on the resettlement in the US of the Uighurs back in 2009.
    You seem to forget: this isn’t theoretical to me. I am actually trying to work with people in the administration to get Guantanamo closed.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    And I can’t do that if I start from a position of implacable opposition to everything Obama stands for. That isn’t going to work.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I never said it was theoretical to you. I know you are closely involved. Have you lost sight of the bigger picture? Yes, Andy. He is tied in knots over Guantanamo because it was never to be closed – he lied – is that so hard to understand. He is a covert president. He says what suits according to the situation.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    No, that’s simply not true, Tashi. Some Republicans want it open forever, Obama and other Democrats don’t. They want to kill people with drones, and they don’t see Guantanamo as helpful. Why do you think they resisted every effort by Republicans to send more people there? They don’t need Guantanamo. They have drones instead. Why mess about with indefinite detention without charge or trial when you can have extra-judicial assassinations?

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Do you remember that event of 9/11… How they took the soldiers to Ground Zero to excite their hatred of the ‘terrorists’ well and good before starting their work at Guantanamo? Why did they do that? Because that made it all real and necessary. That made the soldiers want to fight hard for their country. It’s a tool of manipulation. They need places like that — open — angering and inciting hatred in others to create more ‘terrorists’ like them. Seeing people oppressed and suffering makes more people hate them and resent them and act against them. It furthers their overall agenda. It is very complex, Andy. But it is a part of a much greater plan. One that involves WW3 and it is hard for many to comprehend. I hope one day you are able to see it.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    If you look at the bigger picture of what Obama has done, Tashi, you’ll see that the rationale for Guantanamo is in the past. When the US isn’t drone-kiling alleged terror suspects these days, and individuals are actually caught, in other countries, they are held on ships for days or weeks, and then brought to the US to face federal court trials. Guantanamo isn’t needed. That said, I wouldn’t trust a future Republican president not to send new prisoners to Guantanamo, but that, i think, is a different matter to suggesting that Obama is lying and wants to keep it open.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark Biskeborn wrote:

    Our leaders could have taken all this oil money, tax money for the most of it, and invested it into sustainable energies. But they didn’t do that, instead, they invested money and lives for more oil and more war. As long as the US continues to invade and attack the Middle East for oil, we will have terrorists.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, we need a radical rethink of our foreign policy in the West, that’s for sure, Mark – one that, I think, can only happen when we change our political system and put some sort of socialism – involving the common good, rather than the enrichment of elites – back into the business of government.

  20. the talking dog says...

    Happy new year, Andy. Looking forward to your upcoming visit to our side of the pond.

    Interesting that, after nearly seven years in office, Pres. Obama himself has recognized the significance of getting the GTMO census under 100, and invoking the cost per prisoner– a metric that Americans might actually care about (as of course, it’s their own tax dollars at issue, rather than any sense of fairness, justice, reasonableness or anything else, which Americans have demonstrated that they do not care about, by and large).

    We can hope that as his last year in office looms, he will move into “legacy” mode, and speed things up, and hopefully, leave his successor what his predecessor (George W. Bush) was actually trying to do for him: a much smaller problem, or better yet, an entirely shuttered facility, with its present occupants either transferred home (or to willing third countries), or referred for trial.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Great to hear from you, Happy New Year, and I too am looking forward to seeing you very soon.
    I think Obama’s been mentioning the cost of running Guantanamo for some time, in the hope that it might be politically useful, although generally it seems that the good people of the US don’t care how many millions it costs per prisoner so long as they’re told that they’re being kept safe, while also being encouraged, like good little children, not to ask any questions about exactly who the “worst of the worst” are, who are being held at Guantanamo to keep them safe and sound.
    The particular problem right now, it seems to me, is that Obama needs to significantly speed up the PRB process, but there’s no sign of that happening. It really shouldn’t be that when he leaves office there will still be men held at Guantanamo who haven’t had their cases reviewed except by Obama’s task force in 2009. As I discovered recently, in his executive order authorizing the continued imprisonment of 48 men without charge or trial in March 2011, when he promised to set up the PRBs, he stated, “For each detainee, an initial review shall commence as soon as possible but no later than 1 year from the date of this order.” That date? March 7, 2011.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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