President Obama’s 2009 promise to close down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, infamous for its flagrant denial of human rights, was met with much support throughout the United States and the world. Human rights advocates throughout the world felt justice would finally be served by transferring and releasing detainees from the Guantanamo detention facility. Individuals within the U.S. hoped that Obama’s promise to close the facility would re-solidify the country’s position as the self-proclaimed exemplar of moral and ethical leadership. Unfortunately, four years later, Guantanamo remains open, still imprisoning detainees who are held without charge, and without access to judge or lawyer. In January of 2012, several retired generals and admirals drafted a letter to President Obama urging the transfer of Guantanamo detainees cleared by the Task Force, under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Security Waver. They write:
We recognize the political opposition you have faced in attempting to honor your commitment. Congress has repeatedly restricted your ability to transfer detainees held there who have been cleared for release. Congress has also restricted your authority to bring criminal suspects held at Guantanamo to justice in our time-honored federal criminal courts. However, despite these restrictions, we are asking you to act within the discretion available to you to move our nation forward in closing Guantanamo once and for all.
Political opposition (particularly in the House of Representatives) has been one of the defining challenges of Obama’s presidency, and while it is a legitimate hurdle, it does not excuse Obama’s unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo. The President must be held accountable as well.
The inability to transfer detainees that these retired military men referred to is illustrated in the case of the 89 Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo. All 89 individuals were cleared for transfer by the Task Force, but a moratorium on repatriation to Yemen passed by Obama destroyed their chances of a return home. Obama passed this moratorium after an attempted airliner bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; an act wholly unrelated to the chargeless imprisonment of Yemeni detainees. Another letter to the president, written by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, argued that this moratorium significantly hampered the possibility of Guantanamo’s closure and punished all Yemenis simply on the basis of nationality. Roth argued that the moratorium “paved the way for Congress to act similarly by seeking to prevent repatriations based not on any factors relating to a particular detainee’s past conduct but instead on alleged acts of recidivism by citizens of the same nation.” This moratorium has triggered more national profiling (not unlike large-scale racial profiling) which has become all too common in the post-9/11 world. Roth closes his letter to the president with the persuasive argument that Guantanamo’s very existence is a threat to the United States’ national security and its standing in the global community:
In the past many have looked to the US for leadership and guidance in the promotion of human rights. But now, instead of seeing adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, they see a lack of accountability for past abuse, codification of indefinite detention, and the militarization of law enforcement. Not only are your actions important for upholding fundamental rights in the United States, they also send a message to other nations around the world about what the international community expects of democracies.
The letter written by the generals and admirals echoes the same sentiment, and urges the President to take advantage of the new authority vested in him by the NDAA to release Guantanamo detainees to their homes or to third countries. Unfortunately, though it may allow for the release of some detainees, the NDAA also expands the possibility of indefinite detention without trial. Though the letter drafted in January 2012 prompts President Obama to use the NDAA constructively, towards the release of detainees, it is more likely that the NDAA will be used to further restrict the freedoms of Guantanamo detainees and others in the future.