With eight months down and four to go, Washington has suddenly remembered to ask: How is the closing of Guantánamo going? The answer, according to conventional wisdom, is: not great; the one-year deadline was a mistake, and there never was consensus on closure to begin with. Some are on a witch hunt to lay blame. But reports of impending failure are premature, and the preoccupation with not making the deadline is at least somewhat misplaced.
As of early October, in fact, the Barack Obama administration's effort is actually in considerably better shape than it was in May, when it suffered a near-death experience in Congress. Mistakes and missteps have been made, but the rapidly developing conventional wisdom on what these were is simply wrong. Nor are the critics proving helpful in presenting ideas to make the next four months go more smoothly than the last eight.
To be clear, I was a big advocate of the one-year deadline. Last fall, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released "Closing Guantánamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint," a report I wrote drawing heavily on the deliberations of a nonpartisan working group that met 18 times over eight months, consulting dozens of experts. Although it's not a consensus document, we nevertheless concluded that closing the detention facility would take a year and should begin immediately after the inauguration to signal a serious shift with previous policies and to capitalize on President Obama's popularity as well as the wide bipartisan support that did exist for closing Guantánamo. We had thought -- and it seems some, but not all, in the Obama administration agreed -- that the deadline would give the bureaucracy the needed push to move an issue that had been resisted (slow-rolled, in fact) during the George W. Bush administration. We advocated a process we referred to as "review, release, transfer, and try"; in other words, review the files and sort the detainees into two basic categories: 1) release or transfer to a country, and 2) try those slated for prosecution in U.S. criminal courts. As it turned out, gratifyingly, many (though by no means all) of the recommendations from the report were reflected in the president's executive orders famously signed Jan. 22.
One recommendation that the transition team considered but did not adopt was our call for appointing a "blue-ribbon panel of eminent Americans" to lead the effort right after Obama came into office. These messengers would have been trusted emissaries, a solid mix of Republicans and Democrats, people such as Colin Powell, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Lee Hamilton, as well as other retired generals, former senators, and secretaries of state and defense. Their purpose would have been twofold: to provide the Obama team with needed political cover and to convey to the American people and Congress the importance of closing Guantánamo, while also beginning negotiations with other countries to house released detainees. We knew that there was goodwill from European officials; after the CSIS report came out, I received e-mails and phone calls conveying their willingness to help the Obama administration with what were viewed as shared problems.
Meanwhile, Americans needed trusted leaders to explain why closing Guantánamo was important from numerous nonpartisan perspectives and even why receiving detainees into the United States, such as the Uighurs (whom the Bush administration had slated for release), was safe and patriotic. Heavyweights from the security community could have explained how al Qaeda, according to U.S. military officers including Gen. Stanley McChrystal and experts at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, had used Guantánamo for recruitment. Closing Guantánamo and ending indefinite detention would deprive al Qaeda of that tool. Finally, Americans needed to be reminded that closing Guantánamo held (and still holds) the promise of bringing to justice those who committed heinous crimes -- a crucial point that often seems to get lost in the shuffle.
But instead, the transition team recommended adoption of a different structure: interagency task forces staffed mainly by midlevel bureaucrats who periodically report to the deputy secretary level, where the information would then filter up to the "principals," the cabinet and secretary level, and then, ultimately, to the president. This structure provided the needed worker bees to do what was quintessentially a government job, such as gathering and parsing through the information on the detainees, which (as we had been told by a former military prosecutor) was not simply in one filing cabinet or even one agency but strewn throughout the government.
Unfortunately, it also meant that there were no appointed emissaries to deliver the key messages about Guantánamo; misinformation was already beginning to spread when Obama wrote the executive orders.
Polls in January showed a slim majority of Americans supported closure, but my suspicion then and now is that, for the bulk of the U.S. public, many basic facts concerning Guantánamo were utterly unfamiliar or at best blurry. I have yet to see a reputable survey that shows how many Americans can correctly identify the number of people convicted by the military commissions at Guantánamo since its opening as a detention facility in 2002 (three, including one through a plea bargain) versus international terrorists who have been convicted in the U.S. criminal justice system since 2001 (195). In retrospect, that the case for closing Guantánamo had not been made strongly enough by different sources in January was the first sign of the debacles to come.
Those of us on the outside celebrated the signing of the executive orders on Jan. 22 and then waited, patiently at first and then with increasing nervousness in February and March, over what seemed a lack of movement. As winter turned to spring, this became full-blown alarm. We concluded that either administration officials did not take seriously the timeline of 12 months and/or they were distracted by the numerous other crises (the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan) they had inherited. It was hard to say where the center of gravity was on the bundle of issues related to Guantánamo. No one person seemed to be working this issue full time inside the White House, and nobody was making the case to Congress or the American people.
Weeks went by before the three interagency task forces looking at the Guantánamo detainee files and issues related to detention and interrogation policies were up and running, (again) mainly populated by midlevel government bureaucrats, as one described himself to me, and junior-level political appointees. Worse, many observers noticed that some agencies were sending the very people who had been working these issues for the previous administration. In other words, the slow-rollers were still part of the mix.