All In on Gitmo: Obama Returns to Fight for a Shutdown

Will the president have the political wherewithal to get the prison closed this time? By Daniel Klaidman.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

The most highly anticipated part of President Obama’s counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University today was what he would say about the future of drones. The administration’s aggressive campaign of targeted killings—and the secrecy that has surrounded it—has generated enormous controversy around the world and at home. Obama and his national-security team have spent more than a year working on a new set of policies to constrain the use of drones and place the program on a firmer legal foundation.

But, in a way, the most surprising aspect of the speech was Obama’s rededication to shutting down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. As commander in chief, Obama can unilaterally restrain the military or the CIA’s use of lethal force. But to shutter Gitmo, he will need Congress to work with him. That means Obama will have to demonstrate that he has the will to get the job done—to spend the political capital that many supporters of Guantanamo’s closure say he has thus far been unwilling to do.

To be sure, lawmakers have made it extremely difficult, throwing multiple roadblocks in his way—and demagoguing the issue. But Obama has also fallen short, sometimes flinching when the politics seemed too tough. So a looming question for him is what, if anything, will be different this time around.

In his speech, Obama provided some evidence that he plans to lead with action—not merely eloquence. He announced that he would lift his self-imposed ban on repatriating some 56 Yemeni detainees who were cleared by a high-level administration task force for transfer. (After al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate launched the so-called Underwear Bomber attack on Christmas Day 2009, Obama placed the prohibition on transferring the Yemenis, amid charges they would return to jihad back home.) Obama also said he has directed the Defense Department to identify a facility in the United States to house the 46 detainees who the administration has determined can’t be prosecuted (either because the evidence against them is too weak to sustain a conviction or compromised by torture) but nevertheless are deemed too dangerous to release.

Obama’s original goal had been to transfer them to a maximum-security prisons in the U.S., but Congress blocked that option. Now it appears he is going to revive that plan. But he glossed over the details. “Once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo,” he said “I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.” But he did not elaborate.

In addition, Obama said he would soon appoint a “senior envoy” at both the State Department and the Defense Department to achieve the transfer of detainees to other countries. At State, Obama would be filling a vacancy created by the transfer earlier this year of veteran diplomat Dan Fried, who worked tirelessly on Gitmo, but was not always fully backed up by the White House. More significant in a way would be the appointment of a high-level official at the Pentagon to take on the Gitmo brief. The current deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs is a Bush administration holdover, and the Pentagon overall has been more languid about implementing Obama’s Guantanamo policy.

Perhaps more important than appointing Gitmo czars at State and DOD, is the person Obama will designate at the White House to quarterback the policy across the relevant government agencies. The way hard things get done in any administration is when the president empowers someone to knock heads together and drive the interagency policy process forward. Obama has not had a high-level Gitmo czar in the White House since former White House Counsel Gregory Craig left (partly over the failed Guantanamo policy) in 2010. Obama’s trusted chief of staff, Denis McDonough, is becoming famous in Washington for his battle cry “one team, one fight.” But McDonough is too busy to handle the day-to-day work on a problem as complex as Guantanamo, as is Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser.

So for many advocates of closing the detention facility, who Obama appoints inside the White House will be a key measure of his commitment. “The president has the authority to close Guantanamo,” says Thomas Wilner, a prominent Washington lawyer who has argued landmark cases at the Supreme Court on behalf of Gitmo detainees. “What he’s got to do is act and put the full authority of the White House behind getting the prison closed.”

Wilner and his allies may soon get some good news. A White House official confirmed to The Daily Beast that Obama has asked his chief counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, to handle the day-to-day responsibilities for Guantanamo. Monaco has daily access to the president and clout within the national-security bureaucracy. She also has deep experience dealing with the Guantanamo conundrum. When she first joined the administration in 2009 as a senior Justice Department official, she worked on Gitmo.

There was a slightly weary quality to Obama’s remarks on Guantanamo, a sober acknowledgement that he was once again embarking on a Sisyphean mission. “I know the politics are hard,” he said. “But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it.”

Then Obama mounted a passionate defense of civilian trials, a necessary element of eventually closing Guantanamo. Obama invoked the words of the U.S. district judge who sentenced al Qaeda “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in a Boston courtroom back in 2003. “Judge William Young told him,” Obama recounted, “‘The way we treat you… is the measure of our own liberties.’” Continued Obama: “He went on to point to the American flag that flew in the courtroom—‘That flag will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom.’”

It wasn’t the first time Obama had invoked Judge Young’s stirring words about the strength of America’s ideals in the fight against terror.

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At one of Obama’s lowest moments in his effort to reform the war on terrorrism, he summoned his national-security principals to a meeting at the White House. It was Jan. 29, 2010, and a key step toward shutting down Gitmo was cratering. The previous November, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. had made the decision, backed by Obama, to try Sept. 11 attacks mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his codefendants in a civilian court in New York City. But as the new year dawned, the decision sparked a massive rebellion among New York politicians and in Congress. Obama had gathered his advisers to try to find a path forward. His political team was urging him to ditch the plan, arguing that it risked overwhelming his domestic agenda. For more almost two hours, the conversation moved back and forth between liberal idealism and populist realpolitik. Finally, Obama picked up some papers lying in from him. It was Judge Young’s sentencing speech. He read the entire three-page statement, according to several participants. He put down the speech and looked up. Then he spoke. “Why can’t I give that speech,” he asked, letting the question hang in the air. Without saying another word, he rose and walked out of the room.

Now Obama has shown that he can give the speech. The question is can he follow up on his own words.