Guantanamo Bay: Still Open, Despite Promises

PHOTO: President Obama in Durhmam, New Hampshire

The first in a series of articles examining the campaign promises Barack Obama made in 2008 and where they stand now.

It might be President Obama's biggest broken promise: closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

As a candidate, Obama vowed so many times that he would shutter the prison he called a recruitment tool for terrorists that he himself even noted how often he's promised to do so, in an interview with Steve Kroft shortly after he was elected.

In that interview in November 2008, Kroft asked Obama if he planned to "take early action" to shut down Guantanamo. Obama replied, "Yes."

"I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that," he said.

After three and a half years as president, Obama has not done so.

Shortly after being sworn in, Obama did sign an executive order that required that the Guantanamo prison be closed within a year.

"The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order," read the statement he signed on Jan. 22, 2009.

At the end of that year, in December, with Guantanamo still open and running, Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He said in his acceptance speech: "I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength."

"That is why I prohibited torture," he added. "That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed."

Five days later, Obama issued a memo that directed the defense secretary and the attorney general to prepare a prison in Illinois for the Guantanamo detainees.

The deadline in Obama's executive order passed, and still he hadn't shut down the prison. In March 2011, two years after he signed the order, Obama signed another executive order. This one set up a review process for detainees. The document sought to "establish, as a discretionary matter, a process to review on a periodic basis the executive branch's continued, discretionary exercise of existing detention authority in individual cases."

The White House also released a related four-sentence statement in Obama's name. It didn't mention closing Guantanamo, or even use the word Guantanamo.

Obama has run into plenty of opposition in Congress. Lawmakers passed a bill preventing federal money from being used to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to the United States. Obama signed that bill into law, even as he issued a statement that disapproved of it. The provision was part of a bigger military bill that Obama said was too important not to sign.

Republicans, in particular, say that Guantanamo must stay open to keep terrorists there.

The issue has largely subsided, a result of the stagnant economy wearing on the public and perhaps the repetitive nature of the storyline.

Civil rights advocates still hope Obama stays true to his word. By his own power, he could take significant steps to close the prison, or he could issue a so-called signing statement that supersedes the law preventing federal money from being used to transfer prisoners.

Zachary Katznelson, a senior attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said Obama can release 87 Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared, and start proceedings for trials for the other 169 detainees.

"President Obama has enough control and power that he can get these men out today if he has the political will to do so," Katznelson said. "It is a political decision."

Asked if Obama still plans on closing Guantanamo, the White House said yes.

"Obviously Congress has taken a number of steps to prevent the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but the President still believes it's in our national security interest and will keep trying," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

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