The idea of “campaign promises” is self-explanatory. Once elected to office, candidates are supposed to follow through on the pledges they made while on the campaign trail. But by bungling the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison and failing to scrap the Military Commissions Act, President Barack Obama is not fulfilling those promises.
His campaign promise was that he would reject the Military Commissions Act — the legislation that has made prisons like Gitmo a threat to constitutional rights. He instead revised its interpretation, while still allowing confessions coerced through torture as legal evidence in court and suspending habeas corpus rights — allowing enemy combatants now classified as “prisoners of war” to be detained indefinitely without charges filed against them.
Though the United States Supreme Court ruled that the enemy combatants held at Gitmo have a right to challenge their imprisonment in 2008, Obama said in a speech at the National Archives on Thursday that “if and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight.” Through this statement, Obama admitted that if his administration decides that any of those held at Gitmo could carry out an act of war, he will be held indefinitely with judicial and congressional oversight, not permission.
Closing Gitmo without ending actions like these is an empty victory for freedom. Obama is trying to play America for a fool. He’s pandering to those who were vehemently opposed to President George Bush’s civil right violations without actually changing the policy. The point of closing Gitmo was to put an end to the Military Commissions Act. The end of Gitmo was supposed to be a victory for freedom-lovers everywhere, but every minute the Military Commissions Act endures, it becomes more of a defeat. Obama campaigned under messages of hope and change, yet he’s continuing the behavior that made so many citizens angry about losing their constitutional rights.
Unfortunately, politicians are ignoring this facet of closing Gitmo. As it stands right now, the biggest political outcry is Obama’s lack of a plan for the current detainees. Their concern is that closing the facility is a dangerous but necessary solution to the U.S.’s detainee problems.
But closing the facility is neither dangerous nor a solution to these problems. Transferring the detainees to other prisons doesn’t stop the constitutional rights abuse, it merely continues the government’s denial that it is acting unethically. And moving detainees to new prisons, possibly inside the U.S., doesn’t make the nation any less safe. As long as detainees aren’t released, they don’t pose a great risk to the public. As Obama himself pointed out in his speech Thursday, “Nobody has ever escaped from one of our ‘supermax’ prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists.”
With this ongoing debate, politicians — and the general public — continue to be distracted from the fact that Obama continues to hold suspected terrorists without charging them with an actual crime. What is at great risk here is the continued abuse of constitutional rights. Habeas corpus rights are guaranteed by the United States constitution for a reason. Their denial is unethical, inhumane and in direct contradiction to the rule of law that we value in the U.S.
It’s funny that in Obama’s speech he stood adjacent to the Constitution. He called it “the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.” That’s ironic, considering the Military Commissions Act has angered several European nations, and many liberty-based activist groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
I’m not naïve enough to think that all of the detainees at Gitmo are innocent just because they haven’t been charged. This is a dangerous time, but that’s what makes it more important than ever to protect basic constitutional rights. Obama needs to either end this mess or stop masquerading as a protector of the American people. When Gitmo closes, he should end the Military Commissions Act. Doing so could restore the nation’s faith in him as an actual change from Bush.
Ed McPhee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.