Latest Guantánamo Transfers May Signal Change in Approach

Politicians and pundits are still fighting over whether President Obama should, can, or will close the Guantánamo Bay detention center before he leaves office. For his part, the President has finally decided to step above the political fray and make some significant progress in that direction.

Just yesterday, he transferred another 10 detainees to Oman — the largest single resettlement of detainees since President Obama took office. Each of these men — all allegedly, at worst, lower-level fighters who were cleared for release years ago — had spent about 14 years in custody. Their transfer has finally brought the detainee population below 100, to 93.

Lee Wolosky, the State Department official in charge of detainee transfers, told the New York Times the remaining 34 detainees cleared for transfer may be moved out of the prison by mid-2016.

Although President Obama reiterated his commitment to closing the Guantánamo prison in his State of the Union speech this week, as did his Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Sunday, the naysayers are coming out in full force to try and stop him. Even before the administration announced yesterday’s transfer, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) was out with a press release criticizing it, arguing: “The administration’s failure to tell the American people the truth about these terrorists suggests what we know to be the case: These transfers will make Americans less safe.”

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week insisted President Obama is endangering the American people by releasing these “bad guys” and trying to close “the perfect place for terrorists,” notwithstanding that not one of them has ever been convicted by the US government of any crime, and all those transferred out have been unanimously cleared to go by all relevant federal security agencies (and some by more than one presidential administration).

And former Bush administration lawyer and Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith is publicly scorning the president in Time for still claiming he’ll close Guantánamo when it’s clear the Republicans in Congress won’t agree to it.

Meanwhile, some advocates of Guantánamo closure such as former Pentagon lawyer and Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, and former administration officials Greg Craig and Cliff Sloan in the Washington Post, argue Obama doesn’t need Congressional consent to shutter the offshore prison.

One can argue over how much it really matters, if some detainees remain in indefinite detention either way. Although the symbolism of the Guantánamo detention center is no small thing — giving its closure independent value — ultimately, the men all need to be tried or released. Notwithstanding the strained legal arguments that indefinite detention complies with the laws of war, it is simply “not morally acceptable,” writes Brooks, to “[lock] up human beings indefinitely because of their potential future ‘dangerousness’ — as determined in closed proceedings based on secret evidence.”

President Obama seems to have long agreed with that, and for years hoped compromise would lead to both a moral and legal solution. He may have come to realize that may not be the case. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).