Attorney General Eric H. Holder's decision to return the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed to the Defense Department effectively signaled the end of President Obama’s promise to close the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It was both "a pragmatic decision," and a marked failure, two years in the making.
The Washington Post provides the anatomy of Obama's failure based on interviews with more than 30 current and former administration officials, as well as members of Congress and their staff, members of the George W. Bush administration, and activists. Here are major setbacks that contributed to the ultimate unraveling of what was once a signature goal of Obama's administration.
Northern Virginia. A key step in the process, agreed on by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior national security officials, involved the stealth relocation of eight of the 17 Uighurs held at the off-shore facility to the United States, mostly in Virginia.
But before the plane left Cuba, word leaked to Rep. Frank R. Wolf that detainees were on their way to his district in Northern Virginia. Wolf, who had not been briefed on the matter by the White House, was infuriated, and faxed a letter to the administration and media declaring that the “American people cannot afford to simply take your word that these detainees, who were captured training in terrorist camps, are not a threat if released into our communities.” The administration shelved the plans in response.
The vote against funding. On May 20, 2009, as part of a war-funding request, the Senate voted 90 to 6 against appropriating $80 million to close Guantanamo. The administration was stunned.
The 9/11 trial. In his boldest move, Holder announced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators would be tried in a Manhattan federal courthouse less than a mile from Ground Zero. While the city initially welcomed this, the prosecution soon collapsed.
At the Justice Department, officials thought they had been sandbagged by inflated security estimates made by the New York Police Department, and exaggerated concerns about disruption to the life of the city. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly spoke about creating security rings around the courthouse at an annual cost of approximately $200 million.
Mayor Bloomberg was facing increased local opposition to the trial, but "the administration was silent and did nothing to help him."
Military commissions. In August 2010, the Defense Department began to advocate for a full resumption of military commissions. While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton argued that any military commissions should be accompanied by federal trials, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he wanted to be able to lift the hold on commissions in 90 days.
The Ghailani trial. Ahmed Ghailani, a former high-value detainee at Guantanamo Bay, was charged with multiple counts of murder. His trial was in Manhattan, and might have served as a blueprint. But although Ghailani was given a life sentence for conspiracy to damage or destroy U.S. property, he was acquitted of 284 other counts, including all the murder charges. Critics seized on the fact that an an al-Qaeda terrorist almost got off.
The end of the road. In December, in the provisions of a major defense bill, Congress imposed the tightest restrictions yet on the handling of Guantanamo detainees. And while President Obama called the restrictions a “dangerous and unprecedented challenge” to the executive branch, he did not say he could lawfully ignore them.
As with any failure, the themes that emerge include a great deal of finger-pointing. Many believed that the White House never pressed hard enough on the goal. “They weren’t breathing down our necks pushing the vote or demanding unified action,” said one Democratic aide. There was a lack of leadership: “Everybody seemed to have a piece of it," said one Republican staffer, "but nobody was in charge of it.”