Leaked Cables Demonstrate Guantanamo Dilemma

This week’s explosive Wikileaks story includes a bevy of cables related to Gitmo. Were the camp closed, these might be the least interesting of all. As the camp is still in operation, however, the Guantanamo cables made the front page of The New York Times and reignited the debate about when, and indeed whether, the detention center will ever be shuttered.

In case you somehow missed it (or got bogged down in the details of the 291 documents published on Sunday), we’re not talking about generalities in the cables related to the Gitmo prisoners. We’re talking about specific discussions between various countries on whether they would take detainees released from the detention facility.  If you believe what you read, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati is offered millions of dollars of incentives; Slovenia is actually offered the chance to meet President Obama if it takes a prisoner; Brussels is told that taking prisoners could be "a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.”

I know, it sounds like a story line from an Austin Powers screenplay, but it’s not. It’s real life wheeling and dealing with real lives. And it is a real dilemma for President Obama who rightly called Guantanamo a "mess" that he had inherited from the Bush administration.

But then, to make matters worse, President Obama (well meaning, but only in his second day in office) announced the closure of the camp, apparently without a plan. That’s right. Neither Obama nor his Department of Justice announced a focused plan for what to do with the detainees — the dangerous ones or the majority who, most experts agree, are not dangerous, or at least were not when they first got there.  

The Wikileaks cables don’t reveal much we didn’t already know about Gitmo, but they do confirm what we suspected: The Obama administration’s allies in Europe and elsewhere want nothing to do with these detainees.  

I have been covering the detention center at Guantanamo Bay since it opened in January 2002. On my program Best Defense, on the cable news network Court TV, we aired daily segments on conditions at the camp, the detainees, and the thorny issues raised in the Supreme Court litigation related to their detention. We were one of only two U.S. television outlets to cover live the first military tribunal of Salim Hamdan, Osama Bin Laden's driver.

As a former domestic policy advisor in the White House on crime and justice policy, I also expressed my opinion. I often called for the closure of the detention center in my regular commentary segments. While my view was certainly informed by constitutional considerations — including the detainees’ right to counsel, habeas corpus and speedy trial (not to mention the various human rights considerations raised by the Geneva Convention) — we do not have to resolve those issues in a conversation about whether to close the facility. There is a more pressing concern: national security. With every day the detention center is in operation, we foster terrorism rather than squelch it. Guantanamo is an icon for the Bush administration’s lawless detention and interrogation policies in the so-called "War on Terror." It's also a beacon to Al Qaeda. 

Thus, I wrote with cautious optimism in November 2008 of “a president-elect who has vowed to close Gitmo once and for all. When he does, the camp will go down in history as a sad reminder of what happens when mistakes are made at the highest levels of our government, and no one has the courage to acknowledge it.” Now, two years later, and a nearly a year past the deadline President Obama set for himself, the camp remains open. 

Progressives who supported Obama’s new moral direction — signaled perhaps most boldly by his promise to close Guantanamo — failed to understand the complexities of the reality on the ground. If nothing else, the Wikileaks cables are a stark reminder of those. In addition to a lack of support for closure overseas, there is a lack of support here at home. There is only lip service.  Both houses of Congress denied Obama’s funding requests to shut down Guantanamo and relocate the most dangerous prisoners to the United States. The vote in the Senate was 90-6; all but a half-dozen Democrats opposed their own President. That is why I was optimistic, but only cautiously so.  

Obama still says he wants to close the camp. In an interview, on Fox News, about missing the deadline, however, the President explained his current dilemma: "I’m not going to set an exact date because a lot of this is also going to depend on cooperation from Congress."

Cooperation from Congress. That’s the problem, in a nutshell.

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.