When President Barack Obama was elected president, he and his administration planned to overhaul Bush detention policies and repair America’s image in the world. This specifically included ending torture, ensuring terror suspects were given due process and no longer indefinitely detained and closing the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.
However, the politics of pushing for reforms to counterterrorism policies, which would ensure America was abiding by the rule of law, were detestable to Republicans. The Obama administration had no political will to create a counter-narrative to fear mongering by lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The options for closing Guantanamo became limited and people the administration knew to be innocent remained imprisoned at Guantanamo.
Daniel Klaidman’s book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, tells this story. While sections of the book that reveal how the Obama administration uses drones for targeted killings have received focus in the media, the thread, which runs throughout the book, is the Obama administration’s failure to close Guantanamo. It is this thread that makes the book the most compelling because the failure ultimately leads to Obama’s pragmatic solution to expand the use of a “kill list” to execute terror suspects abroad.
Taking the “Path of Least Resistance”
In Obama’s first days in office, then-White House counsel Gregory Craig convinced Obama to sign executive orders that directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to shut down its network of secret prisons and close Guantanamo. Craig, a liberal idealist, supported many of the demands of civil liberties and human rights organizations that were made in the run-up to Obama’s election. They told Craig that Guantanamo could be closed in six months. The military said it needed eighteen months. In an act of “transactional politics,” Craig gave the administration one year to close Guantanamo, a deadline that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called “ambitious” but “the right one.”
As the deadline approached, it became increasingly clear Guantanamo would not be closed. Obama was constantly playing for time “in the ever-diminished hope that the politics might eventually turn his way.” He took a “tepid approach” to opposition to Guantanamo from Republicans in Congress. He was passive and only wanted to take the “path of least resistance.” He also had a chief of staff named Rahm Emanuel, who found Obama’s commitment to close Guantanamo to be more of a liability than something that could help Obama politically.
“By early June , Emanuel could see that the administration was losing Congress over detainee issues,” writes Klaidman. Appropriation bills had been passed in the House and Senate restricting the transfer of detainees at Guantanamo. He decided to “cut the White House’s losses” and, without informing Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department, he negotiated a deal with Senate Democrats to give Capitol Hill “forty-five days’ notice before any prisoner could be moved” if Congress lifted the “total ban on transfers.”
Holder, as Klaidman reports, took an interest in brutal CIA “interrogation regimes” that had been in place at secret prisons like the Salt Pit just outside Kabul, Afghanistan. He read classified reports that described how a detainee, Gul Rahman, had frozen to death in his cell after being “left shackled and hanging naked from the waist down in a cold, dark cell.” He wanted to launch a full investigation but didn’t think the White House would approve. When Obama decided to release interrogation memos, he hoped “the revelations graphically described in the legal opinions would stoke national outrage, reframe the debate and help build support on Capitol Hill for an investigation.” In the early spring of 2009, he announced in the Situation Room that he was “contemplating launching an investigation into the Bush administration’s brutal interrogation practices.” Emanuel and David Axelrod both thought Holder’s “quest for redemption” was “narcissistic and self-aggrandizing at the expense of the president.” So, a rivalry developed between Emanuel and Holder and, when Emanuel went behind his back and stirred up opposition among Democrats in June, Holder was “livid.” He knew Emanuel’s “end run” would make it even harder for the administration to close Guantanamo.
Part of this uncontrollable backlash was a result of administration plans to release and transfer innocent Chinese Uighurs—Muslim separatists who could not return to their home country because if they did they would face inevitable persecution. Craig and others in the Obama administration saw these men as an opportunity to “drive a knife through the myth that all of the detainees at Guantanamo were dangerous, hardened terrorists.” They thought a few of them should be allowed to resettle in the United States and this would help convince other countries in the world to help the US resettle detainees. But, one Republican, Rep. Frank Wolf, was vigorously opposed and said, “These terrorists would not be held in prisons, but they would be released into your neighborhoods. They should not be released into the United States. Do members realize who these people are?”
This article originally appeared on the blog The Dissenter.