By Jonathan Hafetz, a law professor at Seton Hall Law School who has litigated a number of leading national security habeas corpus cases.
Following his inauguration, President Obama ordered the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay within one year. More than two years later, however, Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo is in shambles. More than 170 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, and new legislation makes it extremely difficult to transfer additional prisoners from the naval base. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently called the prospects for closure “very, very low,” and the administration is pressing ahead with new military commission trials at the base. In many ways, the United States is further from closing Guantanamo now than it was after Obama’s inauguration.
Guantanamo has always been more than a prison. It is also the symbol of a new, alternative detention system that denies prisoners the full protections of America’s criminal justice system. Guantanamo’s continued existence reflects not merely America’s failure to close this notorious prison, but its acceptance of the larger system the prison embodies.
Even as Obama vowed to close Guantanamo, he indicated that he would continue to use “military commissions,” pledging to reform the fatally flawed war crimes tribunals rather than end them. The administration’s decision to abandon the federal criminal prosecution of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other alleged 9/11 plotters in favor of military commissions demonstrates the power this alternative system exerts over U.S. counter-terrorism policy. Obama has likewise endorsed another key feature of Guantanamo: the indefinite detention of some terrorism suspects without trial. His recent executive order creating a new review board to periodically examine their cases demonstrates how deeply this practice has become institutionalized. The question, in short, is not whether the post-9/11 detention system will continue (it will), but what form it will take and how broadly it will sweep.