The Buzz

What Closing Guantánamo Means

Daniel Klaidman’s cover story in the current issue of Newsweek is about the Obama administration and its approach to the prison in Guantánamo Bay. He picks up on President Obama’s comments two weeks ago—in which the president said that the prison “needs to be closed” and that he “was going to go back at” the challenge of closing it—and reports on the administration’s thinking and the obstacles to doing so.

Possibly the biggest piece of news in Klaidman’s story is this:

In the coming days, Obama plans to address both Guantánamo and drones—another festering, controversial element of the administration’s national-security agenda—in a broad “framing” speech that will try to knit together an overarching approach to counterterrorism. In the speech, Obama plans to lay out a legal framework for the administration’s evolving strategies on targeting, detention, and prosecution.

Klaidman tells us that the “interagency wrangling” over the contents of the speech “has apparently taken months,” and that the speech “had been scheduled for last month but was then abruptly rescheduled.” One imagines that the Boston Marathon bombing was the reason why. (Klaidman also reports that in the wake of the bombing, Obama “will also address the evolving threat of self-radicalization and lone wolves.”)

At any rate, the fact that the administration wants to address all of these issues publicly is at least a limited piece of good news. A public accounting and defense of Washington’s approach to counterterrorism and targeted killings has long since been due. But on the Guantánamo question in particular, two things are worth watching. The first is something that Klaidman observes—namely, the concern on the part of the president’s critics that this will turn out to be just another Obama speech, heavy on lofty rhetoric yet “rarely followed up by resolute action.” They worry that he will express “righteous indignation,” but then “be persuaded by his political team that the time is not right to fight.” Given how the past four years on Guantánamo have unfolded, this is an entirely reasonable concern for civil libertarians and others to have.

Second, and more important, is the issue of what the president actually means when he says that he wants to close Guantánamo. He has long wanted to shutter the physical facility in Cuba—that much is clear. But as both Benjamin Wittes and Glenn Greenwald (a supporter and a critic of indefinite detention, respectively) noted after Obama made his comments two weeks ago, that does not mean ending the system of indefinite detention that is Guantánamo’s defining characteristic. Even if Congress had put no restrictions on Obama’s ability to close Guantánamo, the practice of holding some number of people indefinitely, without any charges, would have continued. It would have simply been a smaller number of people, held at a domestic facility within the United States. As Wittes wrote, Obama is trying to have it both ways. He wants to keep the core benefit of Guantánamo, “the ability to detain enemy fighters and leaders outside of the criminal justice system,” but also wants to “partake of the rhetoric of its delegitimization.”

Klaidman’s reporting suggests this is not about to change. He notes, in a parenthetical aside, that “shutting down the facility would likely entail freeing some prisoners, transferring some to jails in other countries, prosecuting some, and moving still others—those being held indefinitely—to U.S. prisons” (emphasis added). This would be progress of a sort, but it’s not exactly what most people would think of when they imagine the government “closing Guantánamo.” As the president gives his anticipated speech, how he presents this choice merits very close attention.