President Barack Obama said many of the right things at a news conference Tuesday about the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Unfortunately, the words don’t mean much without actions.
As for what he said that was on target: “I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists.” Moreover, he said that detaining individuals permanently without a trial is “contrary to who we are. It is contrary to our interests.”
Yet 11 years after it opened in 2002, Guantanamo continues to operate, and continues to undermine America’s interests. At present, it holds 166 detainees. Few have been charged with crimes. More than half have been cleared to be released, and fewer than 10 face active charges before a military tribunal. In some cases, there is too little evidence to try detainees; in other cases, having tortured inmates precludes any prospect of trying them.
Small wonder, then, that 100 detainees are participating in a hunger strike — an action that further diminishes the United States in the eyes of the world. Twenty-one of the hunger strikers have been approved for force-feeding the nutritional supplement Ensure through tubes,. That’s being done even though force feeding of detainees is considered unethical by the World Medical Association and a form of abuse in a bipartisan report by the Constitution Project on the treatment of detainees.
As a candidate in 2008, President Obama promised to close Gitmo. For a time, it appeared possible. There was discussion of transferring detainees to an unused prison in Illinois, and townspeople looked forward to jobs it would create. But that and other options fell to dire warnings that were more political than real of Islamic extremists escaping and inflicting terror on U.S. communities.
Over time, President Obama didn’t seem to mind Guantanamo and moved on to other priorities .
A decade ago it wasn’t difficult to rationalize Guantanamo as a holding facility for terrorists. But continuing to hold them a decade later — with the possibility of holding them for the rest of their lives because we can’t or won’t try them and don’t know what else to do with them is wrong. It’s indefensible.
The president on Tuesday said he would again pursue closing the center. That’s worth doing. And Congress ought to recognize the harm Guantanamo has done to our country and work with him to close the prison and end this ugly chapter in our nation’s history.