05/22/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2013

What Obama Should Not Say on Thursday

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On Thursday, President Obama will deliver a major address on U.S. counterterrorism policy, touching on his now years-old pledge to close Guantánamo, among other prominent issues. His speech comes as the men held at that infamous prison for over a decade, including many of the men my students and I represent, have passed the hundred-day milestone of a hunger strike, protesting their indefinite imprisonment without fair process. It also follows on the heels of a White House press conference three weeks ago when Obama answered questions about the hunger strike. For Thursday's speech to hold any real significance, it cannot repeat the platitudes that Obama voiced in his recent press conference.

Indeed, when Obama was finally forced to address the Guantánamo hunger strike during that press conference on April 30, he reiterated his 2008 campaign promise to close the prison, lamented congressionally-imposed obstacles and pledged to explore administrative options like appointing an official to take charge of the process and expediting the Periodic Review Boards that would consider whether some of the remaining prisoners should be released. Along the way, he stated that Guantánamo is "not necessary to keep America safe," that it is "expensive" and "inefficient" and that it is "a recruitment tool."

The lack of vision and resolve in Obama's statements was nothing short of staggering. That Guantánamo offers America's adversaries and even friendly critics fodder is indisputable, as are Obama's other points. But the prison's existence also contravenes basic human values. Imprisoning people without fair process for over a decade is consonant neither with democracy nor with the rule of law. In his years in office, Obama has retreated from the moral argument against Guantánamo. If he is serious about closing the prison and not repeating the errors of the past, then he should reclaim that moral high ground.

Obama also needs to own the problem and stop blaming Congress. Despite the obstacles thrown in his path from the Hill -- obstacles that he signed into law twice instead of vetoing them -- Obama still retains the legal authority to release prisoners by certifying them for transfer or waiving that certification process. He does not need to appoint new officials or initiate additional review mechanisms to exercise that authority. After all, there was an official in charge of closing Guantánamo during Obama's entire first term (until Obama closed that office -- not the prison) and there have already been three other alphabet soup review mechanisms resulting in the approval for release of over half of the present prison population. Those men, including two of my clients, still languish there today.

What is needed to close Guantánamo is a president with the requisite political will, backed by a compelling moral argument. Unless Obama begins to release prisoners soon, the world can only conclude that he lacks the courage of his convictions or that he does not really mean what he has promised repeatedly. The only official ultimately responsible for Guantánamo's enduring existence is Obama himself.