All the times Obama has said he’s going to close Guantanamo Bay

President Obama announces new plan to close Guantanamo Bay
President Obama announces new plan to close Guantanamo Bay
Image: CSPAN
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US president Barack Obama released a new plan for closing Guantanamo Bay today (Feb. 23). ”This is about closing a chapter in our history,” he said at a press conference. “It reflects the lessons that we’ve learned since 9/11, lessons that need to guide our nation going forward.”

The text of the plan opens with many of Obama’s well-worn arguments for closing the notorious offshore detention center:

Closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is a national security imperative. Its continued operation weakens our national security by furthering the recruiting propaganda of violent extremists, hindering relations with key allies and partners, and draining Department of Defense resources.

In the seven years since the president signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay–a plan that was met with immense pushback from Congress and the public–Obama has regularly delivered variations of these same arguments. They often came in statements following his annual signing of the Defense Authorization Act, which consistently included provisions from Congress that would block the president’s efforts to close the facility.

In 2013, as detainees in the prison carried out a hunger strike, Obama announced that he would redouble his efforts to close the detention center. Last November, after signing the final Defense Authorization Act of his presidency, Obama noted that many of the facility’s prisoners had already been transferred out. Today, he said that only 91 detainees remain in Guantanamo Bay (which once held nearly 800) and once again asked Congress to remove the provisions keeping them there.

Here’s how the debate has played out since 2009:

January 22, 2009

Shortly after taking office, President Obama signed executive orders to ban torture in enemy interrogations, shut down the Central Intelligence Agency’s overseas prisons, and close Guantanamo Bay within a year.  After signing the orders, Obama said:

The message we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals. … We are not going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals. We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that you see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight; we’re going to win it on our terms.

January 7, 2011

Through 2009 and 2010, the president eventually gave in to uproar, from both Congress and in the public, over the idea of moving Guantanamo detainees to the US. He signed the Defense Authorization Act of 2011, which included provisions that would keep Guantanamo Bay open, and would prevent the transfer of detainees out of the camp. He voiced his objections to those provisions in his signing statement:

[The transfer restriction] represents a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and the circumstances of each case and our national security interests.  The prosecution of terrorists in Federal court is a powerful tool in our efforts to protect the Nation and must be among the options available to us.  Any attempt to deprive the executive branch of that tool undermines our Nation’s counterterrorism efforts and has the potential to harm our national security.

He also referenced the pressure that brought him to sign the bill:

Despite my strong objection to these provisions, which my Administration has consistently opposed, I have signed this Act because of the importance of authorizing appropriations for, among other things, our military activities in 2011.

Nevertheless, my Administration will work with the Congress to seek repeal of these restrictions, will seek to mitigate their effects, and will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future.

March 7, 2011

Several months after objecting to those provisions, however, Obama signed an executive order that seemed to diverge from his intent to close the facility. This order would establish a defined system for detaining terror suspects indefinitely, and resume military trials at Guantanamo, which the White House had previously filed a motion to suspend.

It was the first concrete acknowledgement from the Obama administration that the facility would remain open for some time. In the president’s short statement about the order, he made no mention of his promise to close the facility:

From the beginning of my Administration, the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values. Today, I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees. I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system – including Article III Courts – to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened. Going forward, all branches of government have a responsibility to come together to forge a strong and durable approach to defend our nation and the values that define who we are as a nation.

December 31, 2011

Leading up to the approval of the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, the White House had threatened to veto the bill if it included provisions similar to the previous bill. Despite the content of his recent executive order, Obama still wanted room to take steps toward closing the facility.

In response to the veto threat, a special committee dropped one provision from the bill that would have authorized certain new military actions against Al Qaeda. It also dropped a section that would have prohibited the prosecution of terror suspects in civilian courts.

“As a result of these changes,” the White House said in a statement, ”we have concluded that the language does not challenge or constrain the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the American people, and the president’s senior advisors will not recommend a veto.”

Still, the bill continued to ban the transfer of detainees. It also included a provision that would continue to allow the US government to hold suspected Al Qaeda members or allies indefinitely, without trial. So upon signing this bill, Obama issued another signing statement:

The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it. In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.

[One section of the bill] renews the bar against using appropriated funds for fiscal year 2012 to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the United States for any purpose. I continue to oppose this provision, which intrudes upon critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and the circumstances of each case and our national security interests.

[Another section] modifies but fundamentally maintains unwarranted restrictions on the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country. This hinders the executive’s ability to carry out its military, national security, and foreign relations activities and like [the previous section], would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles.

January 2, 2013

By 2013, it became standard procedure for the president to approve the Defense Authorization Act while issuing a statement of objection:

Since taking office, I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my Administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists.

Congress had made some concessions in this bill, Obama said in his 2013 statement, but not many:

For the past several years, the Congress has enacted unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that have impeded my ability to transfer detainees from Guantanamo. Earlier this year I again called upon the Congress to lift these restrictions and, in this bill, the Congress has taken a positive step in that direction. Section 1035 of this Act gives the Administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad by easing rigid restrictions that have hindered negotiations with foreign countries and interfered with executive branch determinations about how and where to transfer detainees. Section 1035 does not, however, eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.

In conclusion, the president added a few points that would signal further actions:

The detention facility at Guantanamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people. I am encouraged that this Act provides the Executive greater flexibility to transfer Guantanamo detainees abroad, and look forward to working with the Congress to take the additional steps needed to close the facility.

April 30, 2013

Four months after signing the Defense Authorization Act of 2013, as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay carried out a hunger strike, Obama announced in a press conference that he would ramp up his efforts to close the facility.

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 counterterrorism 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 going to 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 going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people.

He added:

Ultimately, we’re also going to need some help from Congress. And I’m going to ask 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 — and help me on it.

Still, over the next several years, Obama would continue to sign the Defense Authorization Act, always noting that he had to sign the act despite his objections.

December 26, 2013

Since taking office, I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my Administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists.

December 19, 2014

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense transferred the last remaining third-country nationals held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, ending U.S. detention operations in Afghanistan.  Yet halfway around the world, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains open for the 13th consecutive year, costing the American people hundreds of millions of dollars each year and undermining America’s standing in the world. …  Closing the detention facility is a national imperative.

November 25, 2015

This was the last Defense Authorization Act of Obama’s presidency. He signed with many of his typical arguments, noting that he had vetoed previous versions of the bill. He also added that many prisoner transfers had already taken place, and that more would follow.

It is imperative that we take responsible steps to reduce the population at this facility to the greatest extent possible and close the facility. The population once held at Guantanamo has now been reduced by over 85 percent. Over the past 24 months alone, we have transferred 57 detainees, and our efforts to transfer additional detainees continue. It is long past time for the Congress to lift the restrictions it has imposed and to work with my Administration to responsibly and safely close the facility, bringing this chapter of our history to a close.