Bloomberg View: President at war with himself

May 4, 2013 

"I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo," said President Barack Obama at Tuesday's news conference. "The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are."

Those sound like the words of a man appalled by the very idea of keeping enemy combatants behind bars without charges -- which is hard to reconcile with the actions of the president, who has made indefinite detention a cornerstone of his anti- terrorism policy.

We agree that the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be shuttered, for all the reasons Obama mentioned: "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."

Yet even if Congress magically overcame its misguided objections to transferring those prisoners to the U.S. mainland, closing Gitmo would resolve few of the questions that have made it such a vexing problem to begin with. These include what rights are owed to detainees under the Constitution, and whether indefinite detention is appropriate in what looks to be a long and open-ended war.

A change of geography, moreover, is unlikely to end the hunger strike by 100 or so detainees. They are not refusing food because they are in Cuba. They are refusing food because they are behind bars -- even though many have been cleared for release on grounds that they don't pose a threat to the United States.

Obama's 2009 Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended the release of 86 prisoners, including 59 Yemenis, all of whom remain behind bars. In some cases, their home countries refused to take them back. In more than half, it was determined the prisoner would face torture or persecution after repatriation. Obama issued a moratorium on returning detainees to Yemen shortly after a failed 2009 plot hatched there to blow up a U.S. jetliner over Detroit.

If Obama thinks the security considerations have changed, he can set in motion the release of the 86 immediately, by ordering Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to sign the "certification requirements" Congress mandated in the Pentagon's 2012 spending bill. If Yemen and other nations still balk at accepting the detainees, persuading them to open their doors is the job of the White House's special envoy for closing Guantanamo. Unfortunately, Obama inexplicably closed that office in January.

The president's conflicted impulses are no help in unraveling this national mess. Will he renew his effort to persuade Congress to move those men who still pose a threat from Guantanamo to a domestic location? Is he prepared to open that new prison to additional suspected terrorists, as opposed to blowing them up with drones? Now that Obama seems primed to revisit the topic, perhaps he should tell the American people what the long-term plan is for detainees held in a war with no apparent end.

Without action on such fronts, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that the president was trying to appease critics shocked by the hunger strikes while evading responsibility for his own policies. Tuesday we saw a war of words in the White House, and they all belonged to the president.

-- Bloomberg View

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