“We're going to close Guantanamo,” said candidate Barack Obama at a June 2007 campaign fundraiser in San Antonio, Texas.
“We're going to close Guantanamo,” Obama said at a rally in Fairfield, Iowa, 10 days later.
“We're going to close Guantanamo,” Obama said in a speech in Chesapeake, Va., in August 2008.
It was perhaps the simplest, clearest promise of the Obama campaign. From the moment he declared his candidacy in early 2007 through election night 2008, Obama pledged to shut down the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — no ifs, ands or buts about it.
After the election, members of the outgoing Bush administration tried to warn the incoming president that it wouldn't be that simple. “It's not so easy just to say that you're going to close Guantanamo,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said a week after the presidential election. “These issues are complicated.”
Obama would hear nothing of it. “I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” the president-elect told CBS on Nov. 16, 2008. Doing so, Obama explained, would be “part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.”
Obama thought Guantanamo was so important that he made signing an executive order to close the prison one of his first acts as president. “The detention facilities at Guantanamo … shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order,” said the document, dated Jan. 22, 2009.
In the months that followed, Obama ran into the complications that Perino warned about. Should some Guantanamo inmates be released? Should some be returned to their home countries? Should some be tried in civilian courts? In military commissions? And — the prickliest problem of all — what should be done with those inmates who are a clear danger to the United States and who will never be tried and never be released?
A once-confident Obama acknowledged those problems in a highly publicized speech at the National Archives on May 21, 2009. But acknowledging the problems didn't solve them. Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York ran into bipartisan congressional opposition. Plans to move Guantanamo inmates to a federal facility in Illinois also went awry. And then, just a few weeks ago, came a devastating report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence revealing that one in four of the inmates who have been released from Guantanamo have returned to jihad or are suspected of doing so.
Fast-forward to last Sunday. Appearing on CNN, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked a simple question: When will Guantanamo be closed?
“I think it's going to be a while before that prison closes,” Gibbs said, without suggesting just how long “a while” might be. Gibbs went on to blame Republicans for Obama's failure to close the facility.
When host Candy Crowley objected — “You could close it down, but you're not closing it down,” she said — Gibbs broadened the blame to Congress as a whole and began to discuss the issue's many complexities. Crowley moved on but could well have asked: Didn't Barack Obama, the constitutional law professor and civil rights expert, know all that when he repeatedly promised to close Guantanamo?
Now there is word that Obama is preparing an executive order defining the terms for the indefinite detention of some of Guantanamo's baddest actors. Obama would prefer that those detainees be held in the United States, but wherever it happens, the terrorists will remain behind bars without charges or trial.
That, too, is a violation of an Obama campaign promise. In a March 2008 Washington Post Web chat, candidate Obama pledged, “I will end torture, end extraordinary rendition and indefinite detentions. …”
No doubt these broken promises rankle Obama supporters who actually believed what he said during the campaign. But they are promises that most of the public can be glad Obama has broken. For all its problems, Guantanamo remains what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the “least worst place” to imprison foreign Islamic radicals sworn to jihad against Americans.
Obama's campaign promises were originally made out of arrogance, or political calculation, or an unthinking optimism. The president and his aides apparently believed they were much smarter than the Bush officials who created Guantanamo to deal with a terribly difficult problem. Now they have learned differently.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.