Guantanamo Bay Lives On

The president's campaign promises give way to reality.

Few things have generated more leftist fury than the terrorist prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Amnesty International has referred to the facility as a "human rights scandal."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said inmates had been subjected to "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment. One of the central campaign promises made by then-candidate Barack Obama was that, as soon as he was elected, he would "close Guantanamo."  On January 22, 2009  he made good on his intention, signing an executive order which stated that Guantanamo Bay "shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order."  Almost two years later, intentions have given way to reality.  "I think it's going to be a while before that prison closes," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs during a CNN interview last Sunday.

Why the reassessment? Once again, the seemingly ubiquitous Wikileaks document dumps rears its head.  According to a report filed by Reuters earlier this month, the documents "may highlight U.S. government reports on suspected militants held at Guantanamo Bay, which some U.S. officials worry could show certain detainees were freed despite intelligence assessments they were still dangerous."  According to someone who claimed to be in contact with Wikileaks dumper Julian Assange earlier this year, Mr. Assange has "the personal files of every prisoner in GITMO."

Another sobering dose of reality was offered up by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, the government's top intelligence official. As a result of the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act,  Mr. Clapper's office is required to keep track of former of the activities of both former Gitmo detainees, and whether or not current ones would be likely to return to jihad if they were freed.   A report released by that office on December 9th had statistics showing that one in four of the 598 detainees sprung from Guantanamo are either suspected, or confirmed, to have become re-engaged in "terrorist or insurgent activities." This is a doubling of the number of confirmed or suspected recidivists since the president signed his executive order.  It is also the first time that confirmed recidivists outnumber suspected recidivists.  "If additional detainees are transferred ... some of them will reengage in terrorist or insurgent activities," the report added.

Most of the terrorists who returned to terrorist activity were released during the Bush administration.  The Obama administration has released 66 inmates of which two are confirmed as having returned to terror, and three more are suspected of having done so.  Yet the report conceded that it takes about two-and-a-half years after a detainee is released before he again becomes a known quantity within the intelligence community. Thus, the number of recidivist terrorists is almost certain to increase.  According to the NY Daily News, current known quantities "include Abdul Hafiz, who handles ransom demands for Taliban kidnappings; Abdullah Mehsud who was given a prosthetic leg at Guantanamo and went on to kill 31 in a Pakistan bombing; and Abu Sufyan al-Adzi al-Shihri who surfaced as a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that masterminded the attempted airline underwear bombing."

(Mr. Clapper himself made news recently when he professed no knowledge of a terrorist roundup in London, which had happened only hours before he was interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer.  A spokesman from the Director's office downplayed the incident. "The question about this specific news development was ambiguous. The DNI's knowledge of the threat streams in Europe is profound and multi-dimensional, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.")

Why has the Obama administration been so determined to close Guantanamo Bay?  The American left has long claimed the terrorist holding facility is inimical to America's values, or as the president himself stated, closing it was "part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."  Yet one might argue that much of that opposition was an effort to tarnish the Bush administration's terror strategies in general, using Guantanamo Bay as a convenient prop.  That argument is bolstered by the fact that, on December 8th, the House of Representatives--still dominated by Democrats--voted to block the Obama administration's attempt to send Gitmo inmates to the continental United States for civilian trials.  On Wednesday, December 22nd, both chambers of Congress passed a $160 billion Pentagon appropriations bill which included an effective ban on the transfer of any detainees in Guantanamo Bay to the mainland by forbidding the Department of Defense to use any money to move prisoners to the U.S. for any reason--including trials--during the 2011 fiscal year.  This leaves military commissions as the only viable option left for the administration.

The bill also tightens restrictions on prisoner transfers from Gitmo to foreign countries. Such restrictions were likely animated by the Obama administration's determination to repatriate several Yemeni inmates to their native country in January 2009, an idea also undone by reality:  the attempted bombing of Detroit-bound Northwest flight on December 25, by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained by al Qaeda operatives based in Yemen.

Attorney General Eric Holder claims such a bill could place unconstitutional limitations on the Executive Branch's right to make decisions about where to conduct terrorist prosecutions.  Some conservative politicians agree, calling the bill "ill-considered.  In a Wall Street Journal editorial, former Justice Department lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey characterized the bill as "a step too far," and that the "president is the chief federal law enforcement officer and prosecutor" and "(W)hether, when and where to bring a particular prosecution lies at the very core of his constitutional power."

It is still within the president's power to veto the bill. Yet that is highly unlikely for two reasons:  the comprehensive nature of the bill itself which goes far beyond the issue in terms of funding the Defense Department and the war effort; and the Obama administration's announcement that they would be drafting an executive order calling for a regular review process for those detainees under indefinite detention.  48 of the 174 inmates remaining in the facility, considered "too dangerous to release," fall into the indefinite detention category.

This bill also resolves earlier efforts made by the administration to house inmates in a facility in the state of Illinois. In 2009, the White House had approached the House Appropriations Committee, to see if they would be amenable to adding $200 million to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year in order upgrade Thomson Correctional Center, a nearly vacant maximum-security Illinois prison, to accommodate Gitmo inmates.  The move would have required the federal government to purchase the prison from the state.  The idea had little public support and the measure was subsequently dropped from the bill.  This latest bill makes it clear that such an idea remains a political non-starter.

So too does closing Guantanamo Bay any time soon.  No doubt such a reality is galling for many of the president's supporters who, like the president himself, will have to come to grips with the idea that dealing with hard-core terrorists is substantially harder than they imagined.  One can only wonder if the same people who excoriated the Bush administration for keeping its "American gulag" open for business will hammer the Obama administration for backtracking on his vow during his inaugural speech to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”  Mr. Obama claims he has no problem with the way the facility is being run--now. Whether such a "time stamp" refers to a contrast to the manner in which the Bush administration operated the facility, or the fact that the responsibilities of the presidency undercut the arrogance of cheap campaign rhetoric is anyone's guess.

Either way one thing is certain:  for the overwhelming majority of Americans, a broken campaign promise beats the hell out of a terrorist attack perpetrated by a former Guantanamo Bay inmate.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website