01/12/2012 11:26 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Anniversary of Shame

January 11, 2012, marks a grim milestone: the tenth anniversary of the date that the U.S. government transferred its first detainees from Afghanistan to the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and imprisoned them there without charge or trial.

It was one of the first fateful steps on the path to a permanent war with no borders, a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees and displaced in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, sucked an estimated trillions of dollars from the public coffers and taken an immeasurable toll on the global standing of the United States. Torture, indefinite detention and trial by military commission have become permanent stains on the country's history.

In just 10 short years, the U.S. government has dismantled constitutional protections that define our democracy (legislating in favor of the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects) and violated international treaty obligations (the ban on torture and protections for prisoners of war).

In the two years since President Obama promised to close Guantánamo and restore the rule of law, his administration has in fact taken decisive steps in the opposite direction. It has endorsed military commissions and abandoned the call to try terrorism suspects in federal courts. And now we can add to that list the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which keeps Guantánamo open, and may allow the military to target a U.S. citizen within our borders if the military believes that citizen to be a terrorist. To the dismay of human and civil rights groups, President Obama retracted his threat to veto the NDAA after a congressional negotiating committee made cosmetic changes to the original bill.

Fear is a main ingredient of election-year politics, which is undoubtedly the driving force behind the NDAA. But the ratcheting up of war rhetoric comes at a high price. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora named Guantánamo as one of the two "identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat." Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, James Baker and Warren Christopher have all argued that the immediate closure of Guantánamo is a critical step toward restoring the United States' global leadership.

Indeed, no less than eleven high-ranking former military, intelligence and national security officials warned in a letter, "[W]e should also not allow the destructive politics of fear, which tarnish America's national security imperatives, to dictate the debate"; among the signatories are former Guantánamo Bay Tribunal Officer Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, former National Security Council Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke and former Senior CIA Officer Margaret Henoch.

By closing Guantánamo, President Obama could take a critical first step to restoring human rights and ensuring that justice, equality before the law, and fair and humane treatment triumph over the politics of fear. Without decisive action by President Obama -- which will come only as the result of a sustained and vigorous national outcry -- the United States risks further eroding bedrock constitutional safeguards. If that happens, we will have lost sight of the very principles our leaders have invoked in their efforts to combat terrorism. .

By Curt Goering, chief operating officer, Amnesty International USA.