For his first presidential act upon taking office on Jan. 20 last year, President Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. Many liberals and human rights activists breathed a sigh of relief as Obama promised to return the U.S. to the “moral high ground” and put an end to a shameful chapter in modern American history. One year later and that high ground appears beyond the reach of the Obama administration, as Guantanamo Bay prison remains open with the White House lacking a comprehensive plan to deal with its estimated 245 detainees.  

Obama’s laudable plan to close the prison has stalled for various reasons, some of which are beyond his control. The first reason relates to his attempts to re-house some of the prisoners on American soil. Local senators and governors have fiercely objected to the notion that their state should house suspected terrorists on the grounds that the new prisoners could endanger the safety of Americans. This nonsensical affirmation has been echoed by other partisan commentators and TV networks, despite the fact that the U.S. already houses many convicted al-Qaeda terrorists, as well as various other dangerous criminals. 

The second reason that Obama has been unable to close the prison relates to the legal limbo in which many of the detainees find themselves. Many of the detainees are deemed unsuitable for release but are also considered unfit for trial, due in part to the unsavory interrogation techniques used on them at the prison. As one journalist put it, “Even if Guantanamo itself closes, the system will not close.” Obama’s attempt to find host countries for certain prisoners has largely been met with a muted response, while other proposed countries are labeled “unsuitable”. A case in point was Obama’s recent decision to suspend the repatriation of Yemeni prisoners (roughly half the remaining detainees) to Yemen, following the Christmas Day bomb plot. Obama’s recent purchase of a prison in Illinois may prove to be a step forward in closing Guantanamo Bay prison, but it is not a definitive solution, given that only 35-90 prisoners will be moved there. It also does not solve the problem of those prisoners left in legal limbo. 

Yet the issue at the heart of the Guantanamo debate relates to the safety of the American people. The Obama administration’s worst nightmare is for a released detainee to carry out a serious terrorist attack on U.S. citizens. The fear is not without foundation given that a Kuwaiti released from the prison in 2005 (by the Bush administration) carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2008, killing seven people. A similar attack on U.S. targets would seriously damage the Obama presidency and vindicate the belief held by many hawks that the lurid impulses of the Bush era were merely necessary evils. Nevertheless, it is immoral for a country to hold a huge number of prisoners without due legal process, out of a warped safety-net mentality. If Obama ever hopes to gain the moral high ground for his nation then he must fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. In his 2006 pre-presidential book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama outlined his opposition to the prison’s existence, stating that “When we detain suspects indefinitely without trial, we weaken our ability to pressure for human rights and the rule of law in despotic regimes.” Perhaps it is time for Obama to heed his own wise words.


This week marks 8 years since the opening of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Michael Collins, January 2010