Decision to Resume Guantanamo Bay Military Commissions Muddies the Water

White House continues to insist the controversial detainee center will be shut.

March 8, 2011, 3:00 PM

March 8, 2011— -- President Obama's decision Monday to resume military commissions at Guantanamo Bay was no surprise but it sends mixed signals about the future of the controversial detention center and the president's own standing on the issue, experts say.

Closing the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay was one of the first orders of business Obama announced more than two years ago when he took office.

But the idea has been met with resistance from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, many of whom are against transferring detainees to prisons in mainland United States.

Even as the Obama administration announced it's resuming military tribunals, however, it continues to argue that the detention center will eventually be shuttered in keeping with the president's original promise.

"The president's ongoing commitment to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay holds, and in fact, we've taken a number of actions in service of that goal," a senior administration official said Monday. "What we are also concurrently focused on is making sure that we are meeting the president's goal of bringing terrorists to justice while we pursue the broader framework that allows us to act consistent with our security and our values."

The White House is sending a conflicting message to critics of Guantanamo Bay, experts say.

"On the one hand, it improves operations and processes at Guantanamo and it improves the legal framework under which the U.S. government conducts detention operations," said Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

"On the other hand, the reason why this order is in place is to put Guantanamo policy on a stronger foundation for the long term," he added, and critics "worry this is a step towards making Guantanamo permanent or at least keeping it open."

At the same time, it also did little to appease supporters of the detention center.

Obama's executive order calls for indefinite detention providing for a periodic review of those detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Some Republicans say they want to see more trials.

"The thing is that justice should be a trial and to do something with the people who should be responsible for this. So indefinite detention, I don't think, is a good idea," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said on Fox News Monday. "Let's go ahead and have trials and justice."

Critics of keeping the detainee center open say it only creates a disturbing "new normal."

"While appearing to be a step in the right direction, providing more process to Guantanamo detainees is just window dressing for the reality that today's executive order institutionalizes indefinite detention, which is unlawful, unwise and un-American," Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Will Take Time to Close Gitmo

The president wants to avoid appearing as though he's backing away from his original promise to close Guantanamo, but Monday's move is a clear acknowledgement that that may not happen any time soon.

"They don't want to back off on their original commitment, but their actions seem to acknowledge a political reality, which is it's going to stay open a while," Waxman said.

The move toward the decision has been gradual, so it comes as no surprise.

Obama has faced months of fierce, bipartisan resistance from Congress on his proposal to try Guantanamo detainees on U.S. soil.

The $725 billion National Defense Authorization Act that Obama signed Jan. 7 explicitly prohibits the use of Defense Department funds to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba to the United States or other countries. It also bars Pentagon funds from being used to build facilities in the United States to house detainees, as the president originally suggested.

The move essentially barred the administration from trying detainees in civilian courts. The president objected to the provision in the bill before signing it, calling it "a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority" but also said his team would work with Congress to "seek repeal of these restrictions."

There are about 170 prisoners remaining at the detainee center in Guantanamo Bay, 30 of whom were due to face trial in criminal courts or before military commissions. Since 2002, 598 prisoners have been transferred to other countries.