Congress has been pushing back against President Barack Obama's plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where terrorism suspects are held. Republicans have introduced a "Keep Terrorists Out of America Act" that would require the Obama administration to get permission from states before it could move Guantanamo inmates to locations in the United States, and Democrats have thus far refused to give the White House funding to close the facility.
Obama again pushed for closing the prison during
at the National Archives on May 21, 2009.
"Rather than keeping us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security," Obama said. "It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it."
Also in the speech, Obama talked about how the Guantanamo prisoners would be handled in the legal system. He described five types of prisoners and how they would be handled:
1. Prisoners who will be tried in the federal courts;
2. Prisoners who will be tried through military commissions (though Obama said he intends to modify rules for military commissions set by the Bush administration);
3. Prisoners who have been ordered released by the federal courts (Obama will honor those orders, he said);
4. Prisoners who will be turned over to other countries;
5. Prisoners who cannot be tried in court or through commissions but who will not be released.
It's this fifth category that appears to potentially violate Obama's promise on habeas corpus. During his speech, Obama said these would be the hardest cases to resolve:
"We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States. Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at al-Qaida training camps, or commanded Taliban troops in battle, or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.
"Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al-Qaida terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture — like other prisoners of war — must be prevented from attacking us again."
Obama also said, however, that there must be some form of limits on this time of detention.
"They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone," Obama said. "That's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law. We must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards for those who fall into this category. We must have fair procedures so that we don't make mistakes. We must have a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified."
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., praised Obama's speech overall in
a letter he wrote
to Obama. But he also told him he was concerned about prolonged detentions.
"While I recognize that your administration inherited detainees who, because of torture, other forms of coercive interrogations, or other problems related to their detention or the evidence against them, pose considerable challenges to prosecution, holding them indefinitely without trial is inconsistent with the respect for the rule of law that the rest of your speech so eloquently invoked," Feingold wrote. "Indeed, such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world. It is hard to imagine that our country would regard as acceptable a system in another country where an individual other than a prisoner of war is held indefinitely without charge or trial."
Civil rights advocates have also criticized the framework Obama laid out in his speech. Obama's categories sound like "the worst kind of forum-shopping," said American Civil Liberties Union attorney Ben Wizener in
an interview with Glenn Greenwald
, a civil rights attorney and blogger for Salon.com
"In order to remove this blot on our legal system and on our international reputation, President Obama is starting with the proposition that anyone who his intelligence agencies consider to be dangerous must be detained," Wizener said. "When you start with the conclusion, which is that we'll decide if someone is dangerous, and we'll detain that person, and then work backwards to a set of permanent legal rules that will allow us to reach that outcome, you can see why I might be concerned that we're creating a permanent power vesting in the president holding anybody that he wants to hold."
Obama implied in his speech that indefinite detentions must have some oversight mechanism. We feel it is too early too definitively determine whether those detentions violate Obama's promise to restore habeas corpus for enemy combatants until we know more about the details of that mechanism.
Still, Obama is essentially saying that some prisoners will face neither courts nor military commissions of any sort, but will be imprisoned anyway. This is not a good sign for him keeping his promise on habeas corpus for enemy combatants. So we rate the promise Stalled.