How Obama Bungled the Guantánamo Closing

The White House abandoned Democrats fighting for the closing. What’s different this time? By Josh Rogin.

Michelle Shephard/Toronto Star/AP;Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama called today for a renewed effort to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But back in 2009, the White House dropped the ball on closing the controversial military prison by failing to come up with a plan in time, refusing to help House Democrats who were fighting for its closure, and then abandoning the plan altogether and blaming Republicans.

In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama said his Jan. 21, 2009, executive order to close the prison was never implemented because House Republicans placed funding and legislative restrictions on moving suspected terrorists from the facility and blocked efforts to shut it down. But he didn’t mention his own administration’s missteps in not shutting down the prison in one year’s time, as he had promised.

“As president, I have tried to close Gitmo,” Obama said. “I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. These restrictions make no sense.”

According to lawmakers, officials, and experts who were closely involved in that 2009 fight, the White House, led on the issue by then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, was late in coming up with a plan to close the prison and then made a political decision not to help House Democrats who were fighting tooth and nail with Republicans over the policy.

The fight over restrictions to fund the closure of the prison was led on the Democratic side by then-House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI), and Reps. Jack Murtha (D-PA) and Jim Moran (D-VA). In an interview Thursday with The Daily Beast, Moran said that when fight was on, the White House was nowhere to be found.

“They left all of us twisting in the wind,” he said. “Rightly or wrongly, they gave us a very clear impression, ‘You’re on your own on this issue.’”

White House and Justice Department officials refused congressional requests for briefings, talking points, and other statistics that would have helped Democrats dispute Republican claims that transferring prisoners from the island prison facility increased the threat to national security. Moran argued with Justice officials at the time, but the policy was being made at the White House and was handed down by Emanuel specifically, he said.

“The administration could have weighed in more consistently and more aggressively. They pretty much gave up on getting the Congress to act responsibly on the issue,” Moran said. “It was politically expedient not to use up chips on this issue… Eventually it wasn’t worth fighting anymore because we didn’t have the White House beside us.”

But the White House official technically in charge of the issue at the time wasn’t Emanuel; it was White House Counsel Greg Craig, who was removed as the lead on closing Guantánamo as it became apparent the effort was failing in fall of 2009. But Craig was repeatedly overruled by Emanuel when it came to implementing the president’s policy. Emanuel saw Guantánamo as a lower priority than other pressing matters such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the economic crisis, and the health-care bill.

“Rahm Emmanuel’s basic view was that he thought this was a crazy waste of political capital. That was a signal to the rest of the bureaucracy, ‘Don’t expose yourself on this,’” one person involved in the discussions said. “There was more that could be done. But once it became clear that the White House was no longer investing, everyone got the message.”

The White House forbade Justice and State Department officials from even going to Capitol Hill to meet with Democrats for much of 2009, over the objections of senior officials in those departments.

“They flaked out on the policy in 2009 and the administration starved their friends in Congress,” the person said.

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Tommy Vietor, who was National Security Council spokesman at the time, told The Daily Beast Thursday that the White House did make a decision to back off the drive to close Guantánamo, but only after several things changed that were outside of the administration’s control.

“There were several factors,” as to why the drive to close the prison was no longer a priority he said. “Obviously we didn’t play the politics right. There were also a number of events that made the political situation shift beneath our feet.”

For example, as Obama mentioned Thursday, key Republicans who had supported the effort to close the prison in 2008 reversed themselves after the election, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Also, public and congressional reaction to Attorney General Eric Holder’s November 2009 announcement to try terror suspects in civilian courts and the Dec. 25, 2009, attempted terrorist attack by underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab changed the politics of the Guantánamo issue, Vietor said. By the time Congress put restrictions on shuttering the prison in the 2010 defense bill in late 2009, the door was closed.

“All those things took an issue that had a national-security consensus and changed the politics around it,” he said. “The dynamic changed so much. Once that was the case, sure we moved on to other priorities. I don’t think there was a scenario where if we just kept pushing, it would have gotten better.”

One former administration official who was in the loop told The Daily Beast that while it’s true the White House prevented officials from briefing Congress, that was because the administration’s plan had not been completed as soon as everyone had expected.

The executive order Obama signed in his second day in office created two task forces staffed by Defense and Justice Department officials, one to iron out the new policy and one to examine the statuses of the individuals who were being held at the prison.

“There was definitely a decision to not go up and brief the Hill in 2009, but that was because the plan was not finalized yet. The task forces’ timing was not in sync,” the official said. “It’s overly simplistic to say that Rahm just decided that closing Gitmo was just too politically costly.”

A big part of the hangup was not having congressional buy-in on a domestic location to house those prisoners who could never be transferred or released, the official explained. There were proposals to use prisons in Michigan or Illinois, but Congress quickly passed legislation barring the transfer of prisoners to U.S. soil without strict certifications by the Secretary of Defense.

Obama took that issue head-on Thursday when he called on Congress to remove restrictions on transferring prisoners to the U.S., announced the Defense Department will establish a domestic site for holding military commissions, defended the idea of trying alleged terrorists on U.S. soil, and lifted the ban on transferring Guantánamo prisoners to Yemen, which could greatly reduce the prisoner population in Guantánamo.

By announcing these steps, Obama is calling on the public to support his contention that the prison can be closed safely, in order to put pressure on Congress to change its tune, experts said.

“It looks like he’s learned some lessons from the last go-round,” said Ken Gude, chief of staff at the Center for American Progress, the think tank founded by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. “Starting by designating a site on a military base to hold commissions is a great first step. What is Congress going to say to the Defense Department? That it doesn’t think it can secure a U.S. military base inside the United States from potential attack by terrorists?”

The president’s new plan is only as viable as his willingness to fight for it, according to all those who witnessed its failure the first time around. It remains to be seen if Obama will use his political capital to make sure the job gets done, or if he will leave it to underlings who might not carry it out once more.

Congress is not going to move unless the White House is engaged and the president uses his own personal power to force lawmakers to implement a policy they may not like, said Moran.

“I believe the president genuinely wants to do this, but he needs to prove it and he needs to be prepared to use his leverage to make it happen,” he said. “If he doesn’t achieve it, it’s going to be one of those things that will bother him for the rest of his days.”