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The President Should Exercise His Authority to Close Guantanamo Now

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On February 6, more than 40 luminaries of the Illinois Bar, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote their fellow Illinois lawyer, President Obama, calling on him to fulfill his commitment to close Guantanamo. The signers included Abner Mikva, the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and former counsel to the president; James Thompson, the longest serving governor in Illinois history; Benjamin Miller, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois; and Scott Turow, the famous author. Some, like Mikva and Judson Miner, were early mentors and advisors to Obama. Others were his earliest financial supporters. All of them are now urging the president to make good on his pledge, made to many of them personally and to the public, to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

They remind the president:

Our country does not condone indefinite detention without trial. Congress has passed the legislation you requested easing the former restrictions on transferring detainees to other countries; you now have all the authority you need to close Guantánamo.

The Guantanamo Bay prison camp just "celebrated" its twelfth anniversary. Since it opened, a total of 779 prisoners have been detained there. Nine of them died in captivity. Five hundred and thirty-two were released by the Bush administration while it was in office.

During his campaign, Mr. Obama promised repeatedly that he would close Guantanamo if elected. That commitment was an important reason that many, including many who signed the letter, supported his bid for the presidency. They clearly believe that he can do more to fulfill that commitment.

Although the president committed to closing Guantanamo in his first executive order, he soon backed away from that pledge in favor of other priorities. During the almost three years from September 2010 to May 2013, the Obama administration released only five detainees, all of whom had either been ordered released by a court or were released pursuant to a plea agreement, where they pled guilty to a charge in return for release.

In May of last year, in response to a massive hunger strike at the prison, the president announced a renewed commitment to close the prison. Yet, in the nine months that have passed since then, only 11 more men have been released. At that rate, it will take another 10 and a half years to close the prison.

During his first year in office, the president formed an interagency panel of top security and law enforcement experts to review the files on every detainee at Guantanamo. That panel completed its work four years ago and cleared more than half of the detainees for release. Yet, most remain imprisoned.

Those not cleared in that initial review were promised hearings by newly appointed boards. But those hearings have just started, and the government is conducting only one every six to eight weeks. At that rate, they will take another decade to complete.

In total, after 12 years, 155 men remain imprisoned at Guantanamo. Seventy-seven have been cleared for release. The head of the military commissions there has announced that no more than 20 will ever be charged. It is an open secret in Washington that very few pose any real threat to the U.S. or it allies.

Congress had placed restrictions on the president's ability to transfer detainees from Guantanamo. Three years ago, however, Congress passed an amendment allowing the president to waive those restrictions on transfers to other countries. In December of last year, Congress passed new legislation giving the president the authority he requested to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. As the letter from his Illinois colleagues emphasizes, he now has all the authority he needs to close Guantanamo. No more excuses. No more Guantanamo anniversaries. No more stirring words. He must act. The president should exercise his authority and close the place.

Mr. Sullivan was United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1977 to 1981.

Mr. Wilner was counsel of record to the Guantanamo detainees in the two Supreme Court cases establishing their right to habeas corpus.