Earlier this week the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate reached a compromise as part of an annual defense policy bill that would make it easier to transfer detainees from Guantanamo to foreign countries willing to take them. And while many in the press interpreted the news as evidence that Gitmowas here to stay, the bipartisan deal was actually a watershed moment in the long saga. It was the first time since Obama signed his original executive order that Congress moved to make it easier–not harder–to close the 12-year-old facility.
“It’s as if the president finally decided to flip the on-switch and the White House and Defense Department got up and running to work towards closing Guantanamo,” says Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “And it paid off, with a big Senate vote supporting easing some of the transfer restrictions.”
There were many factors that led to this rare bit of tangible progress on Gitmo. Among them was a political climate that had been steadily shifting away from concerns about national security--especially as the country absorbs the reality that U.S. forces will be largely out of Afghanistan by year’s end. Meanwhile, Washington has been preoccupied with all-consuming battles over debt ceilings and sequestration. And in a time of austerity, arguments about the high cost of maintaining the controversial prison started to gain considerable traction with moderate Democrats and even some Republicans.
But it is also the case that the Guantanamo stalemate began to give way to progress because of a resolute push by Obama as well as a willingness to spend political capital that was not always present during the president’s first term. Obama drove his advisers hard and pushed them to regularly update him on progress. And crucially, he made sure that his team engaged Congress, both to win the cooperation of lawmakers but also to signal that closing Guantanamo was one of the highest priorities of his second term.
Obama first signaled his re-commitment to closing Gitmo last April during a press conference when he was asked about a hunger strike at the prison that had spread to about 100 inmates. Speaking with intensity, the president pledged to rededicate himself to the challenge of shuttering the prison. “Guantanamo is not necessary to keep us safe,” he said, tapping at the lectern. “It is expensive. It is inefficient . . . It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed. I’m going to back at this,” he said.
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