Get moving on Gitmo

On the third day of his presidency, Barack Obama dramatically departed from the disastrous policies of the Bush administration by signing an order promising that the Guantanamo Bay detention center would be closed no later than Jan. 22, 2010. But procrastination from the White House is making it easier for congressional critics to frustrate a step vital to restoring American legitimacy.

Last week, the administration announced that two task forces convened by the president -- one examining the status of the remaining 240 Guantanamo detainees, the other studying interrogation policy -- wouldn’t meet their July 22 deadline for recommendations. Delay in the federal government isn’t unusual, and Obama has been multi-tasking since the day he was inaugurated. Still, dilatory decision-making on Guantanamo threatens to give new meaning to the axiom that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Unlike Bush, Obama is committed to cooperating with Capitol Hill. But Congress isn’t reciprocating. This week, Senate Democratic leaders sidelined the most serious threat to Obama’s policy on Guantanamo, an amendment by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to a defense authorization bill that would have kept the facility open and prohibited the transfer of detainees to the United States. But House Democratic leaders continue to oppose providing funds for the closure that the administration is seeking.

In defending his amendment, Inhofe cited polls showing that “most Americans do not want to close Gitmo, and certainly do not want these terrorist detainees to be transferred to the United States.” What he didn’t say was that those apprehensions have been fed by nonsensical claims that Obama would free dangerous terrorists to run loose in the streets. In fact, prisoners not sent to other countries probably would be held in “supermax” institutions that already hold hundreds of convicted terrorists and from which no one has escaped.


Administration officials are minimizing the importance of the delays, pointing out that 11 detainees have been transferred to other countries, one has pleaded guilty to terrorism-related offenses and another is facing trial. They’re also wrestling with whether some detainees are too dangerous to be released, and with the much easier question of whether CIA interrogators should abide by regulations in the Army Field Manual. (They should.) Meanwhile, the screening of individual detainees is far from complete.

In pressing Congress to move on healthcare reform, Obama said last week that “if you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen.” He needs to follow that advice when it comes to closing Guantanamo.