No We Can't: Obama's Guantánamo

06/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Celebrations of a new civil liberties hero were sadly premature. Four months on, dozens of innocents are still in prison.

You would be hard-pressed to find a kid more thrilled on Barack Obama's first day in office than Mohammed el Gharani. On January 21, had you been standing at the right corner of Guantánamo Bay, you could have heard him whoop for joy when the U.S. President made history -- so we thought -- by closing the prison el Gharani grew up in.

Today marks four months since that decision, and the president has given another speech. He correctly referred to Guantánamo as a mess, and rightly refused to let the situation fester unchecked.

Yet, for all the president's good intentions, the mess has indeed festered, and badly. The new administration has squandered a key opportunity to make real, and swift, progress.

In his first 100 days, President Obama should have accomplished the easy tasks. He should have freed all the prisoners already cleared for release by federal courts. He should have secured new homes for refugee prisoners, using the immense swell of goodwill in Europe. He should have pre-empted any scaremongering by showing that resettlement can be a safe and peaceful process for all.

Instead, the administration has made almost zero progress. Last week the president revived the failed military commissions, a move that risks stretching the prison's life out for months. Just two prisoners have left Guantánamo since January. One, Binyam Mohamed, had humiliated the US and the UK over his torture; the other, Lakhdar Boumediene, had been ordered released by a federal judge.

It is unclear what the administration is waiting for in Mohammed el Gharani's case. He was found innocent in court, just like Boumediene, and he has a country to go to. He could climb on a plane to Chad tomorrow, were the administration simply to wake up and do what it has been ordered to do.

Then there are Gitmo's sixty refugees, who require the US or another country to save them from torture at home. For these men, the administration's dithering spells disaster. For while the government frittered away the global goodwill that would have helped them house refugees in January, the Right regrouped.

Now, talking heads and demagogues have found a new target in Gitmo for scaremongering -- a group of innocent Muslim refugees from China called the Uighurs. After rumors swirled that a couple of Uighurs might be released into the US, members of the right published libelous statements saying they were tied to al Qaeda. (Even the Bush administration conceded the Uighurs were not the enemy.)

Republicans in Congress have vowed to fight "putting terrorists in American towns" to the bitter end. On the heels of this panic, even the Democrats yanked from a bill funding to close Guantánamo. Yet nearly every country in Europe has made clear: if the US takes no refugees, Europe will take no refugees.

Up to now, the Obama administration has kept silent before this storm of falsehoods, though it well knows it could doom the closure of Guantánamo. We know of no other options the US has pursued for the refugees, aside from Europe and the US. Rumors of Middle Eastern havens have not, apparently, been pursued. Those options closed by inaction, what is left? Filling cells in Bagram, perhaps, or worse still, returning men to Tunisia, China, or Uzbekistan. These no longer seem beyond possibility.

How did this happen? A clue is that the president is advised largely by the Department of Defense, populated by those loyal to Bush/Cheney and desperate to save face. Unfortunately for Obama, the old guard are digging in their heels, dragging their feet and sending out unhelpful press releases along the way.

As Guantánamo attorneys, we are one step ahead of President Obama simply because we work on the front line. We have actually met the people that the Department of Defense so fears. We have picked through the evidence and sized up the intelligence. Our arguments are not, as Obama suggests, driven by 'Absolutist' civil liberties principles. They are driven by rational analysis based on the evidence of our own eyes.

We at Reprieve have watched Mohammed el Gharani grow up in prison. It is high time he left. And while it is not too late for President Obama to let him go, and take a strong stand on these issues, he has lost precious time. Today we heard moral equivocation from the lips of the very man who lambasted Guantánamo repeatedly on the campaign trail. I fear we will all look back on May 21, 2009, as the day real history was made --The Day President Obama Un-Closed Guantánamo.