The first sign that Obama wouldn’t be able to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay came when he couldn’t even resettle two innocent detainees in the United States.
It was the 17 Uighur detainees at Gitmo who immediately put the lie to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s declaration, in 2002, that the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay only held “the worst of the worst.” The last three Uighur detainees held at Guantanamo were transferred to Slovakia, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, ending a decade-long saga in which the United States held a group of men it knew almost from the beginning to be innocent. The transfer leaves 155 detainees at Gitmo, down from nearly 250 when Obama took office and 166 at the beginning of 2013.
According to national security journalist Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture, the U.S. government knew by 2003 that the Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority from China, were not terrorists. But the U.S. wouldn’t send them back to China, where Uighurs had faced torture and repression, but neither would they release them into the United States.
Congressional resistance to an Obama administration plan to resettle two Uighur detainees in the United States first foreshadowed the massive political resistance to closing Gitmo and convinced the administration itself not to waste precious political capital on the project, according to Klaidman. Republicans, stung by Obama’s attack on the Bush era as one of national security lawlessness, saw an opportunity to keep Gitmo open and saddle Obama with his predecessor’s legacy. It was not yet clear just how much of Bush-era policy on national security the candidate of hope and change would ultimately embrace.
The original plan, Klaidman reported, was that two Uighur detainees would be resettled in the U.S. as a good-faith gesture to persuade other nations to take detainees in an effort to empty the prison. When the recently retired Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf got wind of the plan in May 2009, he took to the floor of the House to accuse the Obama administration of wanting to let terrorists run free in American cities.
“Let’s be clear: these terrorists would not be held in prisons but released into neighborhoods,” Wolf said. “They should not be released at all into the United States. Do members realize who these people are? There have been published reports that the Uighurs were members of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, a designated terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the Uighurs “instructed by the same terrorists responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.” He then urged Obama to send them back to China. One of the prisoners responded to Gingrich through their attorney: ”Why does he hate us so much?”
A U.S. federal court had ruled in 2008 that the detention of the Uighurs was baseless and that they were not terrorists or “enemy combatants” – something that, according to Klaidman, the government had already known for at least five years. The court also questioned the government’s designation of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement as an ally of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer writes was motivated by the Bush administration’s desire to shore up Chinese support for the invasion of Iraq, itself based on a falsehood. Judge Ricardo Urbina, who ordered the Uighurs be resettled in the U.S. in 2008 after determining they posed no threat to America (a ruling later blocked at the request of the Obama administration) told the Miami Herald that “there was not a shred of evidence that they were disliked by anyone — anyone but the Chinese government.” Don’t forget Wolf and Gingrich.
Yet the backlash succeeded. Despite polls showing showing majority support for closing Gitmo, and President George W. Bush’s own view that the facility should be closed, the Obama administration sensed the political winds were shifting and backed off. Democrats, spooked by Republican fearmongering, voted with their GOP colleagues to deny Obama the funds to close Gitmo. It was the beginning of the end for Greg Craig, the White House counsel tasked with making sure one of Obama’s first orders as president, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, was actually fulfilled. When Congress instituted harsh restrictions on Gitmo transfers during the lame duck session in 2010 – shortly after Republicans had taken back the House – closing Gitmo became all but impossible.
Most of those restrictions remain in place–the Obama administration can’t bring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. for any reason–not for trial, imprisonment, or medical treatment, let alone resettlement. After renewing its push to close Gitmo this year, appointing new special envoys and sending high ranking national security officials to the Capitol Hill, the administration finally managed to persuade Congress to lift some restrictions on the transfer of detainees to other countries in the most recent defense bill. The changes mean more than half of the detainees, who are cleared for transfer, may soon leave the detention camp. Civil liberties groups have praised the Obama administration in language not heard since he was a senator–but closing Gitmo remains impossible as long as the other restrictions remain in place.
Five years after Obama signed an executive order authorizing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, it remains open, because of a political backlash that began with men everyone knew were innocent.