Part of Best Foreign Affairs Web Stories of 2011

Why Obama Can't Close Guantanamo

National Security Policy Is Foiled by Congressional Politics and Bureaucratic Infighting

The last two prisoners to leave the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay were dead. On February 1, Awal Gul, a 48-year-old Afghan, collapsed in the shower and died of an apparent heart attack after working out on an exercise machine. Then, at dawn one morning in May, Haji Nassim, a 37-year-old man also from Afghanistan, was found hanging from bed linen in a prison camp recreation yard.

In both cases, the Pentagon conducted swift autopsies and the U.S. military sent the bodies back to Afghanistan for traditional Muslim burials. These voyages were something the Pentagon had not planned for either man: each was an "indefinite detainee," categorized by the Obama administration's 2009 Guantánamo Review Task Force as someone against whom the United States had no evidence to convict of a war crime but had concluded was too dangerous to let go. Today, this category of detainees makes up 46 of the last 171 captives held at Guantánamo. The only guaranteed route out of Guantánamo these days for a detainee, it seems, is in a body bag.

The responsibility lies not so much with the White House but with Congress, which has thwarted President Barack Obama's plans to close the detention center, which the Bush administration opened on January 11, 2002 with 20 captives.

Congress has used its spending oversight authority both to forbid the White House from financing trials of Guantánamo captives on U.S. soil and to block the acquisition of a state prison in Illinois to hold captives currently held in Cuba who would not be put on trial -- a sort of Guantánamo North. The current defense bill now before Congress not only reinforces these restrictions but moves to mandate military detention for most future al Qaeda cases unless the president signs a waiver. The White House withdrew a veto threat on the eve of likely passage Wednesday, saying the latest language gives the executive enough wiggle room to avoid military custody.

On paper, at least, the Obama administration would be set to release almost half the current captives at Guantánamo. The 2009 Task Force Review concluded that about 80 of the 171 detainees now held at Guantánamo could be let go if their home country was stable enough to help resettle them or if a foreign country could safely give them a new start.

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