The hunger strike at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay reflects the despair of the 166 detainees held there. The 100 currently refusing to eat have placed hope in touching the American conscience. On Tuesday, they had a glimmer of success. President Obama told a White House news conference that he would recommit himself to closing the prison.
“It’s not sustainable,” the president declared, “the notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity.” The words were familiar. As a candidate five years ago, he cudgeled the presence of the Guantanamo prison, rightly troubled by the stain on this country’s reputation, the facility a recruiting tool for extremists, a venue for torture and other elements of dictatorships long criticized by this country for failing to uphold individual rights and the rule of law.
Obama the candidate pledged to close Guantanamo. He reiterated the promise early in his presidency. Yet it remains in operation, and much of the reason involves Congress, lawmakers from both parties setting restrictions and denying the president the resources to transfer detainees from the prison. So the prisoners have been stuck, even the 86 who have been approved for release. Many have been held for more than 11 years — without charges, let alone trials.
The president also bears responsibility for the unkept pledge. At the news conference, he cited ordering a review of “everything we can do administratively” to move toward closing the prison. Actually, administrative options have been available the past year. The president has the authority to issue waivers from the restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Yet they have not been pursued.
The State Department official assigned the task of exploring repatriations and the transfer of lower-risk detainees has been reassigned but not replaced. More than 50 Yemenis are part of the group approved for release. They have been blocked, in part, by the White House reluctance to return them to a Yemen seen as unstable.
The president’s reluctance is understandable, to a point. The politics are ugly. Release a detainee only to see him return to terrorism, and criticism will rain down heavily. And those detainees viewed as too dangerous to release yet are unlikely to face trial due to a lack of solid evidence? They are essentially prisoners of war. Soon, the war in Afghanistan will be over. Still hold them in perpetuity, as the president described?
For the White House, and the country, there is a choice — between two sets of risk, the potential danger in releasing the detainees and the harm in betraying first principles about the rule of law. The heartening thing about the president’s news conference is that he has reclaimed an urgency about the latter, the greater concern. What the hunger strike of detainees reinforces is that with each day, the dark legacy of Guantanamo becomes increasingly more difficult to repair.