This has been the case for years. But this week, the political press has finally started to call him on his dishonesty in large numbers, exposing his recent Gitmo remarks as disingenuous preening.
The remarks were delivered on Tuesday, when Obama addressed the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay, where American guards are presently engaged in force-feeding prisoners.
Here's a transcript:
QUESTION: Mr. President, as you're probably aware,
there's a growing hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay among prisoners there.
Is it any surprise, really, that they would prefer death, rather than
have no end in sight to their confinement?
OBAMA: Well, it is not a surprise to me that we've got problems in
Guantanamo, which is why when I was campaigning in 2007 and 2008 and
when I was elected in 2008, I said we need to close Guantanamo.
I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo. I think,
well, you know, I think it is critical for us to understand that
Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is
inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It
lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a
recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.
Now, Congress determined that they would not let us close it. And
despite the fact that there are a number of the folks who are currently
in Guantanamo, who the courts have said could be returned to their
country of origin or potentially a third country, I'm gonna go back at
this. I've asked my team to review everything that's currently being
done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I'm
gonna reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not
something that's in the best interest of the American people.
And it's not sustainable. I mean, the notion that we're going
to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man's land in
perpetuity, even at a time when we've wound down the war in Iraq, we're
winding down the war in Afghanistan, and we're having success defeating
Al Qaeda core, we've kept the pressure up on all these trans-national
When we transfer detention authority in Afghanistan, the idea
that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have
not been tried, that is contrary to who we are. It is contrary to our
interests and it needs to stop.
Now, it's a hard case to make because, you know, I think for a lot of
Americans the notion is "out of sight, out of mind." And it's easy to
demagogue the issue. That's what happened the first time this came up.
I'm going to go back at it because I think it's important.
QUESTION: Meanwhile, you continue to force-feed (inaudible).
No, I don't -- I don't want these individuals to die. Obviously, the
Pentagon is -- is trying to manage the situation as best as they can.
But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this.
Why are we doing this? I mean, we've got a whole bunch of individuals
who have been tried who are currently in maximum security prisons around
the country. Nothing's happened to them. Justice has been served. It's
been done in a way that's consistent with our Constitution; consistent
with due process; consistent with rule of law; consistent with our
The -- the individual who attempted to bomb Times Square, in prison
serving a life sentence. Individual who tried to bomb planes in Detroit,
in prison serving a life sentence. A Somali who was part of al-Shabaab
who we captured, in prison.
So we can handle this.
And I understand that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,
with the traumas that had taken place, why for a lot of Americans the
notion was somehow that we had to create a special facility like
Guantanamo and we couldn't handle this in a normal, conventional
fashion. I understand that reaction. But we're now over a decade out. We
should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute
terrorists. And this is a lingering, you know, problem that is not gonna get better. It's gonna get worse. It's gonna fester.
And so I'm gonna, as I said before, we're -- examine every option that
we have administratively to try to deal with this issue, but ultimately
we're also gonna need some help from Congress. And I'm gonna ask some --
some folks over there who, you know, care about fighting terrorism, but
also care about who we are as a people to -- to step up and help me on
I've preserved the emphasis of Ben Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who writes at the always informative blog Lawfare. "The President's comments are bewildering because his own policies
give rise to the vast majority of the concerns about which he so
earnestly delivered himself in these remarks," Wittes commented. "Remember that Obama himself has imposed a moratorium on repatriating
people to Yemen. And Obama himself has insisted that nearly 50 detainees
cannot either be tried or transferred. True, he would hold such people in a domestic facility, rather than at
Guantanamo Bay. But so what? Does the President not understand when he
frets about 'the notion that we're going to continue to keep over 100
individuals in a no-man's land in perpetuity' that if Congress let him
do exactly as he wished, he would still be doing exactly that -- except
that the number might not reach 100 and the location would not be at
This is what vast swaths of the public, right and left alike, don't understand about Obama's position. Yes, he wants to close Guantanamo Bay, in the sense that he wants to shutter the island facility in Cuba. But he wants to continue indefinitely detaining people without charges or trial. And not just dangerous terrorists who can't be tried because the Bush Administration tortured them.
"For Obama to talk in the language of the ACLU when what he means is that
he wishes to hold fewer people than are now at Guantanamo and to do so
at Location B, rather than at Location A, is profoundly dishonest," Wittes adds
. "If Obama had meant that he wants to bring to an end detention -- which is
legitimate as long as hostilities continue -- as he brings hostilities to a
close, he could have said as much very simply. He didn't need to go on a
rant about how much we had learned about how to handle terrorists over
the last ten years. He didn't need to wring his hands about how much
damage Guantanamo does to America's image. He could simply have stated
that detention under the laws of war is proper as long as hostilities
continue, that he hopes to bring hostilities to a close in short order,
that releases will be inevitable at that point, and that Congress should
give him more flexibility with respect to transfers now. Instead, he
described himself as fighting against a policy he has, in fact, adopted."
As you can see, Wittes isn't bothered by indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay so long as hostilities persist. Glenn Greenwald has a different position. Like Senator Obama, Greenwald believes the present policy is immoral even if the War on Terrorism is still in progress. What the two men agree about is that Obama's Gitmo rhetoric is egregiously misleading. Greenwald has been saying so for years, and last year, he wrote a post at Salon
demonstrating that Obama's departure from his own lofty rhetoric on Gitmo prisoners began almost immediately after he took office, before legislators had done anything to constrain his actions. Said Greenwald
Every time the issue of ongoing injustices at Guantanamo is raised, one hears the same apologia from the President's defenders:
the President wanted and tried to end all of this, but Congress --
including even liberals such as Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders --
overwhelming voted to deny him the funds to close Guantanamo. While
those claims, standing alone, are true, they omit crucial facts and
thus paint a wildly misleading picture about what Obama actually did and
did not seek to do.
What made Guantanamo controversial was not its
physical location: that it was located in the Caribbean Sea rather than
on American soil (that's especially true since the Supreme Court ruled in 2004
that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over the camp). What made Guantanamo
such a travesty -- and what still makes it such -- is that it is a system
of indefinite detention whereby human beings are put in cages for years
and years without ever being charged with a crime. President Obama's
so-called "plan to close Guantanamo" -- even if it had been approved in
full by Congress -- did not seek to end that core injustice. It sought to
do the opposite: Obama's plan would have continued the system of
indefinite detention, but simply re-located it from Guantanamo Bay onto
Long before, and fully independent of,
anything Congress did, President Obama made clear that he was going to
preserve the indefinite detention system at Guantanamo even once he
closed the camp. President Obama fully embraced indefinite detention -- the defining injustice of Guantanamo -- as his own policy.
In February, 2009, the Obama DOJ told an appellate court it was embracing
the Bush DOJ's theory that Bagram detainees have no legal rights
whatsoever, an announcement that shocked the judges on the panel hearing
the case. In May, 2009, President Obama delivered a speech at the
National Archives -- in front of the U.S. Constitution -- and, as his plan
for closing Guantanamo, proposed a system of preventative "prolonged
detention" without trial inside the U.S.; The New York Times - in an article headlined "President's Detention Plan Tests American Legal Tradition" - said Obama's plan "would
be a departure from the way this country sees itself, as a place where
people in the grip of the government either face criminal charges or
walk free." In January, 2010, the Obama administration announced it
would continue to imprison several dozen Guantanamo detainees without
any charges or trials of any kind, including even a military commission,
on the ground that they were "too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release." That was all Obama's doing, completely independent of anything Congress did.
When the President finally unveiled his plan
for "closing Guantanamo," it became clear that it wasn't a plan to
"close" the camp as much as it was a plan simply to re-locate it --
import it -- onto American soil, at a newly purchased federal prison in
Thompson, Illinois. William Lynn, Obama's Deputy Defense Secretary, sent a letter to inquiring Senators that expressly stated that the Obama administration intended to continue indefinitely to imprison
some of the detainees with no charges of any kind. The plan was classic
Obama: a pretty, feel-good, empty symbolic gesture (get rid of the
symbolic face of Bush War on Terror excesses) while preserving the core
abuses (the powers of indefinite detention ), even strengthening and
expanding those abuses by bringing them into the U.S.
Despite the fact that all this information has been publicly available for years, Greenwald has had a very difficult time getting anyone to listen. As he said this week, "I just don't know how to get people to understand this. They've been
told so often that Obama tried to close Gitmo but Congress stopped him
that they can't realize that, though narrowly true, it's extremely
misleading." His frustration is understandable. Even this week, if you read, say, this ThinkProgress coverage
of Obama's Gitmo remarks, or this Washington Post
account, you'd be totally shocked by the facts in Greenwald's posts. But perhaps the truth is finally beginning to be understood.
Here's Maureen Dowd in her latest New York Times column
Asked about the hunger strike, the former constitutional law professor
in the White House expressed the proper moral outrage at holding so many
men "in no-man's land in perpetuity." But it sounded as though he
didn't fully understand his own policy. Closing Guantánamo doesn't address the fundamental problem of rights.
Obama's solution, blocked by Congress, is to move the hornet's nest to a
Supermax prison in Illinois -- dubbed "Gitmo North" -- and keep holding
men as POWs in a war that has no end. They're not hunger-striking for a
change in scenery. It's true that Congress put restrictions on transfers of individuals to
other countries with bad security situations. But, since 2012, Congress
has granted authority to the secretary of defense to waive those
restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The administration hasn't made use
of that power once. So it's a little stale to blame Congress at this
What are the consequences of the failure for which Obama and Congress share blame? Prisoners, finding themselves in an island prison with no prospect of ever getting out, have understandably started a hunger strike, one of the few means they have of protesting their status. Their guards have responded. "I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my
nose," one inmate, who is cleared for release but detained anyway, has stated
. "I can't describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it
was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but
I couldn't. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had
never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel
punishment upon anyone."