Obama "All Hope, No Change??? On Gitmo

Though President Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of “hope and change,” making Guantanamo’s closure his #1 priority upon taking office, WikiLeaks’ initial release of 250,000 stolen U.S. diplomatic cables have underscored that he was actually “all hope, no change” on emptying the detention facilities.

Proudly declaring that he would “restore America’s values,” and “return the country to the rule of law,” Mr. Obama tried to distance himself from President George W. Bush – despite the fact that by 2007 Mr. Bush had already voiced his desires to close Gitmo and was working towards that goal. 

Capitalizing on Gitmo’s unpopularity at home and especially abroad, Mr. Obama suspended military commissions on inauguration day, and just 48 hours later signed an executive order to close Guantanamo detention facilities no later than Jan. 2010.  Both proved to be merely hollow promises, as commissions resumed for a few detainees throughout 2009 and 2010, while closure is nowhere in sight.

Since the Bush Administration released some 540 detainees from 2002-2008, repatriating most to their home countries and resettling others to third party nations mostly for humanitarian reasons, government insiders already knew how difficult detainee transfers were – and did not keep it a secret. 

Both Defense and State Department officials stated for years that 90 countries were approached for assistance in resettling 22 Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group from Xinjiang, in western China. 

Now, the extraordinary challenges associated with resettling detainees around the globe is painstakingly obvious to everyone through reading the actual diplomatic cables and their executive summaries as published by willing partners, notably the New York Times, Britian’s The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel

Though Norway led the way in showering international praise on Mr. Obama, awarding him a Nobel Peace Prize just months after he ordered Gitmo closed, privately they refused to help him with resettling detainees labeling the burden, “purely a U.S. responsibility.”

One of the chief obstacles to closing Gitmo has been the question of Yemeni detainees, who numbered roughly 100 of the 241 of detainees when Mr. Obama was sworn into office.

Though the Bush Team conducted years of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Yemen – whose nationals comprised the second and third largest populations at Guantanamo, repatriation and resettlement of most Yemenis proved too difficult to resolve, hence the avoidance of setting a specific timetable for its closure. 

Contrasting this to Team Obama’s approach, in one of the most extreme examples of putting the cart before the horse – announcing a firm closure date and then coming up with a plan – one cable describes a March 2009 visit to Yemen’s President Ali Saleh by Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan.

Mr. Brennan argued for sending Yemeni detainees through a comprehensive Saudi rehabilitation program – and was predictably rebuffed as Yemen insisted on establishing its own program to handle its own nationals, with U.S. and Saudi support.

Perhaps unable to grasp a Yemeni rejection of Team Obama, the cable sourly notes, “To say Saleh missed a good chance to engage the new administration on one of its key foreign policies would be a severe understatement.”

Meanwhile, the largest source of Gitmo’s total of 780 detainees, Afghanistan, has seen 199 repatriated, though 20 remain.  Despite his security assurances, President Karzai’s inability to stop ex-detainees from returning to terrorism has complicated more releases. 

Though the Obama Administration has rarely published the recidivism numbers for ex-Gitmo detainees, this week the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released a report citing a 25% rate, meaning about 150 men are confirmed or suspected of having returned to terrorism.

Since these include Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership figures in Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula, and foot soldiers including a suicide bomber who killed 13 in Iraq, a fair question for the Obama Administration is if further resettlements are really a wise decision at this point.

Although WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange could likely not imagine his work actually helping Gitmo to stay in business, his public embarrassment of diplomats over detainee resettlements virtually guarantees the remaining 174 detainees spend even more time in Cuba. 

A locale not far from his mind, Assange has threatened to release a “doomsday file” containing Gitmo documents as a bargaining chip in case WikiLeaks is blocked or if he is arrested.  As Gitmo’s most damaging files have already been made public via a decade of litigation and media leaks, he has either fabricated documents or is simply bluffing.  His bluff should be called.

And now that Scotland Yard has Assange in custody on the international arrest warrant issued in Sweden for rape and sexual molestation of two women, an even greater irony would be eventual extradition to the U.S. – and a follow-on one-way ticket to Gitmo.