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Civil Libertarians Reject Obama’s Guantanamo Closure Plan


Detainees at Guantanamo Bay (The Toronto Star/ZUMApress.com)

If there was any doubt that Republicans in Congress will oppose this year’s push from President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) speech Wednesday to the Heritage Foundation ought to have laid it to rest. In the course of a half hour’s worth of invective against the administration’s counterterrorism policies, the Senate minority leader pledged to block funding for any efforts at giving terrorism detainees trials in civilian courts. But he held out a special reverence for the much-vilified locus for military commissions and indefinite detention. “Thankfully, Gitmo is still open for business,” McConnell said.

[Security1] McConnell then turned, briefly, to an argument that is starting to be shared by McConnell’s typical political enemies — and which could seriously complicate the administration’s plans for the final closure of Guantanamo Bay. If Obama simply moves the military commissions and indefinite detentions featured at Guantanamo to a new detention facility in Thomson, Ill. — as the administration currently plans –then there is “no doubt” that al-Qaeda will use Thomson “for the same recruiting and propaganda purposes” it’s used toward Guantanamo, McConnell said, a prospect that “eliminates the administration’s only justification for closing Guantanamo.”

With reluctance, many in the civil-liberties community think McConnell has a point. They have no patience for McConnell’s argument that terrorism detainees should not receive civilian trials. But the administration’s plan to close Guantanamo, from their perspective, merely transfers its most offensive practices to the middle of Illinois. In what they see as a tragic irony, the cohort that led the charge during the Bush administration to shutter the Guantanamo facility is increasingly vocal in opposing Obama’s already-imperiled path to shutting it down.

“What’s the point of simply moving Guantanamo on shore?” said Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said flatly, “We oppose any legislative proposal that links the purchase of Thomson to indefinite detention without charge and the use of military commissions.”

The coalescing civil-libertarian opposition to the Thomson plan now has a legislative target. Robert Hale, the Pentagon’s comptroller, announced on Monday that the $159 billion funding request for next year’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will contain a $350 million “transfer fund” for detainee operations that will authorize the administration to “let us open the Thomson, Illinois, site.” Placing the money for buying Thomson from Illinois — a necessary step toward transferring those Guantanamo detainees that will not be tried in federal civilian court to the prison –effectively dares critics to face accusations of not supporting the troops in Afghanistan if they try to block funding for for the Guantanamo closure.

At least one question about Thomson that civil libertarians consider crucial remains unanswered by the Obama administration. The administration has stated clearly that Thomson is designed to house detainees tried before military commissions, as occurs at Guantanamo. But it has been much vaguer about embracing or renouncing the even more contentious prospect of indefinite detention, Guantanamo’s other chief feature.

Last month, a year-long interagency task force on Guantanamo detainees recommended to the White House that the administration ought to continue to hold about 50 detainees indefinitely without charge, claiming simultaneously that there is insufficient evidence to convict them before either civilian or military courts but that their release would jeopardize national security. An administration official who would not discuss ongoing deliberations on the record said that the National Security Council is still reviewing the task force’s recommendations. “You should not consider them already accepted,” the official said, but cautioned that there is no timetable for formal adoption, rejection or modification of the recommendations, since “detainees’ status’ could change, based on the status of their habeas case [or] the situation on the ground in a receiving country” to which the detainees’ might be transferred.

With the arrival of a funding mechanism for Thomson on Capitol Hill, that vagueness leaves the civil liberties community unable to say that the administration has ruled out holding detainees indefinitely without charge, a bedrock principle of every civil libertarian organization, and unable to distinguish Thomson’s planned activities from Guantanamo’s objectionable ones. “If all we’re doing is exporting Guantanamo to Thomson for purposes of military commissions and indefinite detention,” said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, “we’re very strongly opposed to that.”

Devon Chaffee, who handles national-security issues for Human Rights First, cautioned that the contours of the Thomson legislation were not yet fully defined. But, she said, “Human Rights First will continue to oppose indefinite detention without trial and the use of a flawed military commission procedure regardless of where it’s implemented. As long as the U.S. continues those policies, it will fail to overcome the policy mistakes that made Guantanamo a stigma. Those are two positions of ours that are not going to change.”

As a result of the administration’s vagueness about continuing to hold detainees at Thomson indefinitely without charge, the $350 million funding vehicle could unite liberal congressional opponents of indefinite detention with conservative congressional advocates of it. And the Obama administration does not have much legislative margin for error, even on a request as normally politically sacrosanct as war funding. Like with the defense budget overall, the Iraq and Afghanistan money for next year, formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund, must be authorized by the Senate and House armed-services committees before the formal appropriation is taken up by the Senate and House appropriations committees, all preceding full votes before the Senate and House. Republicans in the Senate proved willing in December to filibuster the defense appropriations bill in a failed bid to stop Obama’s health-care reform package. A potential alliance of convenience between Republicans who want to keep Guantanamo open and liberal Democrats who want to prevent Thomson from becoming a new Guantanamo could jeopardize the measure’s passage.

Anders said that if the Thomson plan was “reconfigured for the pre-trial detention and post-conviction sentencing of people tried in [federal] courts we might very well take a very different position,” holding out the prospect of the administration earning civil libertarian support by shuttering both Guantanamo and its policies. But, he added, “that’s not how it’s being set up.”

That isn’t a consensus position among civil libertarians. David Remes, a lawyer for several Guantanamo detainees and the executive director of the Appeal for Justice, a human-rights legal practice, said he opposes Thomson under any circumstances. “Number one, I oppose preventive detention in principle, and number two, I don’t see how spending a lot of money to change the zip code moves the ball forward,” Remes said. “I’m not in favor of moving anything to Thomson. There really is no difference between being tried in Gitmo North versus Gitmo South.”

Nor has the civil libertarian community been consulted on the plan, a position that many consider to have effectively cut off the administration from potential outside messaging surrogates. “The community has been frustrated working with the administration on this because we’ve been available and more than willing to help defend policies we think are the right ways to close Guantanamo,” Sloan said. “They haven’t really done that here. We feel we’re behind the eight ball.”

Shuttering Guantanamo within one year was among of Obama’s first pledges in office. But the deadline slipped after numerous congressional missteps, including a dramatic Senate vote in May, embraced by 90 senators, to prohibit funding to “transfer, release, or incarcerate” Guantanamo detainees in the United States. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Democratic leader, insisted then that the vote was mostly symbolic and any administration plan to close Guantanamo would receive careful Senate consideration.

But the opposition to the administration’s plans for closing Guantanamo is increasing, even among those who ultimately want the U.S. to be rid of all forms of indefinite detention. Anders said that for the ACLU, “The goal has never been changing the geography. The goal is to close both Guantanamo and the policies that are problematic there — the use of military commissions and indefinite detention. Transferring those policies to Thomson is something we oppose.”

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