Now here's an interesting development. A close study of the front-runners in the presidential primaries reveals that all have called for the closure of Guantanamo, with the exception of Mitt Romney, who famously declared, during a televised GOP debate last May, "I am glad [the detainees] are at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo."
Both of the Democrat front-runners -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- have made a point of including plans to close the prison on their websites. Senator Obama's site includes a commitment to restore habeas corpus to the Guantanamo detainees, and a speech he made in Washington D.C. last August, in which he declared, "in the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantanamo, we have compromised our most precious values. What could have been a call to a generation has become an excuse for unchecked presidential power. A tragedy that united us was turned into a political wedge issue used to divide us."
He added, "When I am president, America will reject torture without exception. America is the country that stood against that kind of behavior, and we will do so again," and made the following pledge with regard to Guantanamo, "I also will reject a legal framework that does not work. There has been only one conviction at Guantanamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was nine months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our JAGs [the military lawyers of the Judge Advocate General's Corps]. As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."
Hillary Clinton's website also includes a prominent call for the closure of Guantanamo, although she is vaguer on the details, and, as the Miami Herald has pointed out, "she has not prominently included pledges to do it in her campaign speeches." The following comment was made during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last April: "Guantanamo has become associated in the eyes of the world with a discredited administration policy of abuse, secrecy, and contempt for the rule of law. Rather than keeping us more secure, keeping Guantanamo open is harming our national interests. It compromises our long term military and strategic interests, and it impairs our standing overseas. I have certainly concluded that we should address any security issues on what to do with the remaining detainees, and then close it once and for all."
Of the Republicans, John McCain remains as opposed to the existence of Guantanamo as he is to torture, although he apparently believes in the much-criticized system of trials by Military Commission (and does not appear to have included his opposition to Guantanamo on his website). Speaking to 60 Minutes last April, he declared, "I would close Guantanamo Bay. And I would move those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth. And I would proceed with the tribunals." He went on to explain, "Guantanamo Bay has become an image throughout the world which has hurt our reputation. Whether we deserve it or not, the reality is Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have harmed our reputation in the world, thereby harming our ability to win the psychological part of the war against radical Islamic extremism."
Even Mike Huckabee joined in recently, explaining, after meeting a group of retired generals who were urging all the candidates to commit to opposing torture, that he supported the closure of Guantanamo. That wasn't what he said last June, however, when he conceded that the government's handling of Guantanamo had come to symbolize "what's gone wrong" in the fight against terrorism, but concluded that it was better to err "on the side of protecting the American people," adding, contentiously, that conditions for detainees in Guantanamo - who are, of course, held without charge or trial -- were better than in US prisons on the mainland.
Talk is fine, of course, and it's admirable, I think, that any of the candidates mentioned above would go out of their way to pledge the closure of Guantanamo, when it still, sadly, remains a marginal issue compared to the war in Iraq and the usual dominant concerns of the electorate: the economy, healthcare and education.
Given that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have expressed their desire to close Guantanamo in no uncertain terms, it's a tribute to the substance of Senator Obama's involvement in the plans to shut the prison (as opposed to the oft-repeated opinion that his visionary charisma is not necessarily backed up by solid policies) that over 80 lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees have singled out his campaign for their endorsement, citing his "extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue," and providing concrete examples of his commitment to closing Guantanamo once and for all.
The signatories to the open letter include Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a cross-section of prominent corporate attorneys and lawyers from smaller firms, who have all been engaged in pro bono work for the Guantanamo detainees. Also included are John Gibbons, a former federal judge, who argued the landmark Supreme Court case, Rasul v. Bush, which granted the detainees habeas rights in June 2004 (until they were removed in 2006's Military Commissions Act), and retired US Navy rear admirals Donald Guter and John Hutson, who have maintained a strong opposition to the government's policies.
The letter states, "We are at a critical point in the Presidential campaign, and as lawyers who have been deeply involved in the Guantanamo litigation to preserve the important right to habeas corpus, we are writing to urge you to support Senator Obama."
Explaining their reasons, the letter's authors explain, "Some politicians are all talk and no action. But we know from first-hand experience that Senator Obama has demonstrated extraordinary leadership on this critical and controversial issue. When others stood back, Senator Obama helped lead the fight in the Senate against the administration's efforts in the Fall of 2006 to strip the courts of jurisdiction, and when we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough Senators to beat back the administration's bill, Senator Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us. Senator Obama worked with us to count the votes, and he personally lobbied colleagues who worried about the political ramifications of voting to preserve habeas corpus for the men held at Guantanamo. He has understood that our strength as a nation stems from our commitment to our core values, and that we are strong enough to protect both our security and those values. Senator Obama demonstrated real leadership then and since, continuing to raise Guantanamo and habeas corpus in his speeches and in the debates."
In conclusion, the authors add, "We need a president who will restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community. Based on our work with him, we are convinced that Senator Obama can do this because he truly feels these issues 'in his bones.'"
For more on the Guantanamo litigation, see my book The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.