The Obama administration has sidelined its efforts to close the Guantanamo prison (photo, from nytimes.com), making it unlikely that president Barack Obama will keep his promise to close thejail in Cuba before the end of his term in 2013.
Last year the White House acknowledged that it would miss the initial January 2010 deadline for shutting the prison. However it also declared that the detainees would eventually be moved to one in Illinois.
Yet impediments to that plan have mounted in Congress, and the administration is doing little to overcome them.
“There is a lot of inertia” against closing the prison, “and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan.
He added that “the odds are that it will still be open” by the next presidential inauguration.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also supports shutting the Guantanamo prison, said the effort is “on life support and it’s unlikely to close any time soon.” He attributed the collapse to some fellow Republicans’ “demagoguery” and the administration’s poor planning and decision-making “paralysis.”
The White House insists it is still determined to shut the prison, arguing that Guantánamo is a symbol in the Muslim world of past detainee abuses.
“Our commanders have made clear that closing the detention facility at Guantánamo is a national security imperative, and the president remains committed to achieving that goal,” said a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt.
But privately some senior officials say that the administration has done its part, including identifying the Illinois prison — an empty maximum-security center in Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago — where the detainees could be held.
They blame Congress for failing to execute that endgame.
“The president can’t just wave a magic wand to say that Gitmo will be closed,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on a sensitive issue.
When Obama took office a slight majority supported closing the prison. By a March 2010 poll, 60 percent wanted it to stay open.
Senator Carl Levin portrayed the administration as unwilling to make a serious effort to exert its influence, contrasting its muted response to legislative hurdles to closing Guantánamo with “very vocal” threats to veto financing for a fighter jet engine it opposes.
Last year for example, the administration stood aside while lawmakers restricted the transfer of detainees into the United States except for prosecution. And its response was silence several weeks ago,according to Levin, as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to block money for renovating the Illinois prison to accommodate detainees, and to restrict transfers from Guantánamo to other countries — including, in the Senate version, a bar on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia.
About 130 of the 181 detainees are from those countries.
“They are not really putting their shoulder to the wheel on this issue,” Levin said of White House officials. “It’s pretty dormant in terms of their public positions.”
The New York Times recently obtained a Pentagon study, which shows that taxpayers spent more than $2 billion between 2002 and 2009 on the prison. Administration officials believe taxpayers would save about $180 million a year in operating costs if Guantánamo detainees were held at Thomson.
Officials hope Congress will allow the Justice Department to buy from the State of Illinois at least for federal inmates.
But in a sign that some may be making peace with keeping Guantánamo open, officials also praise improvements at the prison : an interagency review team brought order to scattered files, president Obama banned brutal interrogations and Congress overhauled military commissions to give defendants more safeguards.
The category of detainees that have been cleared for release but cannot be repatriated for their own safety, is on a path to extinction : allies have accepted 33, and just 22 await resettlement.
Another category, of detainees who will be held without trials, has been narrowed to 48.
However the administration has to deal with a worsening problem : the prison’s large Yemeni population, which includes 58 low-level detainees who would already have been repatriated if they were from a more stable country, officials say.
They added that the administration asked Saudi Arabia to put some Yemenis through a program aimed at rehabilitating jihadists but was rebuffed.
And Obama imposed a moratorium on Yemen transfers following the failed Dec. 25 attack, which was planned by a Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda whose members include two former Guantánamo detainees from Saudi Arabia.
Formerly criticised practices
Therefore the Obama administration has been further entangled in practices many of its officials lamented during the Bush administration.
This month, a judge ordered the government to release a 26-year-old Yemeni imprisoned since 2002, citing overwhelming evidence of his innocence.
Last year the Obama team decided to release the man, but shifted course after the moratorium. On Friday an official said that the National Security Council decided to send the man to Yemen in a one-time exception.
In the meantime discussions have faltered between Senator Lindsey Graham and the White House aimed at crafting a bipartisan legislative package that would close Guantánamo, while bolstering legal authorities for detaining terrorism suspects without trial.
Such legislation would build confidence about holding detainees, including future captures, in an untainted prison inside the United States, said Graham. But the talks lapsed.
“We can’t get anyone to give us a final answer,” he said. “It just goes into a black hole. I don’t know what happens.”
According to a senior official, even if the administration comes to the conclusion that it will never hold its promise to close the prison, it cannot acknowledge it as it would revive Guantánamo as America’s image in the Muslim world.
“Guantánamo is a negative symbol, but it is much diminished because we are seen as trying to close it,” the official said. “Closing Guantánamo is good, but fighting to close Guantánamo is O.K. Admitting you failed would be the worst.”