Why does the President construe his executive power so narrowly with respect to closing Guantanamo Bay?

August 2nd, 2013

The President has been roundly criticized for broad assertions of executive power. From “kinetic military actions” in Libya to drone strikes of U.S. Citizens in Pakistan to NSA wiretaps of everything to record prosecutions of leakers, President Obama, in contrast with candidate Obama, has not been a shrinking violet as Commander in Chief, even earning the praise of John Yoo! We get it. Obama has a bold vision of executive power, much in line with that of George W. Bush.

But what about Guantanamo Bay? Why is that different? Why can’t he get creative and sidestep the separation of powers here, like he does in other aspects of his job.

The Daily Beast has seen the Administration’s “Two-page” plan of how to close Gitmo. It isn’t much of a plan.

It all appeared promising. But the two-page plan—which Newsweek obtained—makes clear that the administration’s vision for closing Gitmo is more like a mirage, one containing many of the political elements that have served to frustrate progress on issue after issue over the past five years. Once again, Congress seems poised to block Obama’s loftiest goals; once again, liberal activists say the president should circumvent the legislative branch; and once again, the administration is replying to these entreaties by insisting that it simply cannot move ahead alone.

As for the administration “plan” to close Gitmo, it reads as much like an argument for why the prison can’t be closed anytime soon as a blueprint for the kind of bold action some say would be required to shut down the facility. Here’s how the document—titled “White House Plan for Closing the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility.”

And critics say he is not flexing his muscle enough here:

The waiver power is the crux of the dispute between the administration and its critics. The critics accuse Obama of interpreting his authority too narrowly. “Obama promised to close Guantánamo, and he clearly has the authority right now in existing legislation to do it, but he won’t,” says Thomas Wilner, a Washington lawyer who has represented clients in two landmark Guantánamo Supreme Court cases. “All of us who believed in him need to be very disappointed.”

Why is he so timid here, especially in light of his other bod assertions of power? Maybe it’s because he no longer wants to close Guantanamo? Or more precisely, he may want to, but doesn’t think it would be safe to do so? Maybe, having viewed the threats to our nation, he doesn’t want the detainees to return to the battle field? That’s easier than foiling future terror plots, right? Maybe, in keeping with his other bold assertions of war power, he agrees with President Bush, and wants to keep the dangerous detainees here? Maybe, he is just hiding behind the “Congress won’t let me” reason.

It seems that even other Democrats realize this.

Indeed, that was the blunt message two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Richard Durbin, heard earlier this month when they met with the two most senior White House officials handling Guantánamo—Monaco and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler. Two sources familiar with the July 15 meeting say the senators left the session frustrated that the White House was not looking for more creative ways to solve the Guantánamo conundrum, including using all of its current authority to transfer out detainees. Durbin obliquely alluded to his concern a few days later at the Senate hearing, which he chaired. “I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the administration could be doing more to close Guantánamo,” he said before telling the attendees that he and Feinstein had met with “senior White House officials to discuss what they are doing under existing law to transfer detainees out of Guantánamo.”

We are now in the second term of his presidency, and if this report is to be believed, there is no chance that Gitmo will be closed by 2016.

To make more than incremental progress, administration officials argue, they need new legislation to pass Congress. To that end, they say they are backing a proposal that recently came out of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would give them far more flexibility to transfer detainees overseas as well as to the United States. The chances of such a proposal becoming law? “Hope springs eternal,” says a senior administration official with a sigh. In other words, for the vast majority of detainees at Guantánamo, hope appears to be running out.

This was promised to be done within the first year of his presidency. 2009. Lest we forget that Democrats controlled both houses from 2008-2010. Laws could’ve been passed here. But the President was otherwise preoccupied (with Obamacare, among other things).

Update: Perhaps we can add drone strikes to the list of things the President would like to stop, but really doesn’t want to.

The mixed messages of the past week reveal a deep-seated ambivalence inside the administration about just how much light ought to shine on America’s shadow wars. Even though Mr. Obama pledged a greater transparency and public accountability for drone operations, he and other officials still refuse to discuss specific strikes in public, relying instead on vague statements about “ongoing counterterrorism operations.”

This quote stuck out also:

But the Obama administration is expected to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan well into the future. Hours after Mr. Kerry’s interview, the State Department issued a statement saying there was no definite timetable to end the targeted killing program in Pakistan, and a department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said, “In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises.”

Statements like that make clear that the institutional interests of the United States will always trump any civil liberties concerns of the occupant of the White House.