It’s looking more certain that President Barack Obama won’t keep his campaign promise to close the terrorist prison at Guantánamo Bay.
But this failure isn’t on him. It’s on Congress, which adamantly refuses to let the president do the right thing.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate joined the House in overwhelmingly approving a $607 billion defense bill that bars Obama from moving any Guantánamo detainees to the United States. The votes were by such wide margins that an override of any veto seems assured.
Congress continues to ignore the fact that Guantánamo Bay is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money and a stain on America’s standing in the world. Obama ended torture, rendition to black sites and other abuses during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” But Guantánamo remains, its cost and damage piling up, year after year after year.
Of the nearly 780 men held at the prison since it opened in January 2002, only eight have been convicted by a military commission, while nine have died in custody.
Today, 112 are still at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. The problem remains finding countries willing to accept the ones who could released, and holding others who pose threats in secure prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union pegs the cost of holding 53 detainees cleared for release at $152 million a year, compared to $1.8 million annually it would cost to hold them in a federal prison.
That savings could be put to very good use – say, beefing up security at airports so bombs can’t be put in cargo holds of passenger jets, or maybe even helping post-9/11 veterans.
Any day now, the Pentagon will issue a report identifying federal facilities in Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina as possible destinations for detainees. If “supermax” prisons are secure enough to hold our most dangerous criminals, surely there’s a dark corner for suspected terrorists we don’t want to send back to their home nations or the few third-party countries willing to take them.
The White House has been hinting that Obama might resort to using his executive power to close Guantánamo. Given that the courts have blocked his executive order blocking the deportation of some 5 million undocumented immigrants, Obama is probably gun shy. As on immigration reform, it would be far better for Congress to act responsibly than for Obama to act unilaterally.