Being commander in chief is complicated. A case in point: the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay.
President Barack Obama isn’t likely to keep his pledge to close it during his eight years in office. So he’s trying to empty it. Monday, his administration announced its single biggest transfer of Guantánamo detainees – 12 Yemenis and three Afghans, who had been held for 14 years without trial – sent to the United Arab Emirates.
As Obama points out, Guantánamo has long been a recruiting tool for terrorists, a cash pit for taxpayers and a stain on our national honor.
But in Donald Trump’s all-out war on terror, it’s all so simple. Laws or constitutional principles don’t matter. Ethics or morals are for the weak.
In his big terrorism speech Monday, he made clear that he would keep Guantánamo open and vowed to capture “high-value targets.” He has said he wants to bring back waterboarding and worse, though he later said he wouldn’t order the military to violate international laws against torture.
And last week, he said it’d “be fine” to try U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism at the Guantánamo military tribunal, never mind our fundamental legal rights or that it would be illegal without an act of Congress. The tribunal has been flawed. The five alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks were charged four years ago, but no trial date has been set. So why would we consider it for Americans?
Then-President George W. Bush opened the Guantánamo detention center at the U.S. naval base in Cuba in January 2002 after the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. The population at Guantánamo peaked at 684 in June 2003. When Obama took office, 242 detainees remained. The latest transfer leaves 61, including 20 others who have been approved for release.
But releasing them has its own pitfalls. Officials said in March that of 532 detainees let go under Bush, 111 were confirmed to have conducted more terrorist activities and that of 144 released under Obama, seven have returned to terrorism.
It would be better to close it and house the remaining detainees in U.S. prisons, but Republicans and some Democrats in Congress won’t allow it.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton supports Obama’s plan to shutter Guantánamo, saying that it has “inspired more terrorists than it has imprisoned.” Unless she has a friendlier Congress as president, she will have difficulty, too.
But at least she understands the limits of presidential power and the importance of upholding our principles.