President Barack Obama’s bid to turn the page on his predecessor’s “war on terror” is likely to be severely hampered after Republicans romped to victory in mid-term elections, analysts said.
His plan to shut down the reviled US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and proposals to try in civilian courts the five men accused of plotting the September 11, 2001 attacks are set to run into an emboldened opposition from the Republicans, who have already stymied his agenda.
“The mid-term elections will likely further entrench indefinite detention, military commissions, and other key aspects of the ‘war on terror,’” said lawyer Jonathan Hafetz who has defended several of the Guantanamo inmates.
“President Obama’s stated goal of closing Guantanamo, already a painfully slow process, will become even more difficult to realize.” Swept to office on a wave of euphoria, Obama pledged immediately after his January 2009 inauguration to close down Guantanamo within a year.
But his ambitious timetable has been indefinitely pushed back as US officials desperately try to resolve the thorny problem of what to do with the 174 inmates still languishing in the remote jail.
It also ran into hurdles in Congress, where Republican lawmakers successfully blocked funding for moves to close Guantanamo such as by transferring the inmates to American soil.
The issue became so contentious that amendments to ban such transfers were tacked onto several bills by Republican lawmakers, snarling up the Obama administration’s efforts.
After an in-depth review by the Department of Justice, many of the prisoners who have not been charged have been deemed fit for release. But the administration is unwilling to send home those who could face torture, and it has proved an arduous task persuading third countries to accept them.
Other prisoners are due to be tried, or transferred into a secure prison on US soil. But again Republicans and many Democrats have balked at such plans.
“Let’s just say it is going to stay open until at least the end of President Obama’s first term, and maybe well into his second term (if there is a second term),” wrote Hofstra University professor Julian Ku on the blog Opinion justice about Guantanamo.
It is also looking increasingly likely that the trial of the five 9/11 accused co-plotters will be held before a military tribunal in Guantanamo instead of in a civilian court in mainland America.
These two issues are not the only ones highlighted by human rights activists who had hoped Obama would close the chapter on the excesses of the “war on terror” launched in 2001 by his predecessor George W. Bush.
Drone strikes against al Qaeda suspects notably in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the right to hold “war on terror” suspects indefinitely without trial and over-arching presidential powers to fight terrorism are other issues raising concerns.
“At this point, the president, the Congress, and the courts have all bought into the general idea that we’re at war with al Qaeda, and that the president can therefore wield traditional tools of warfare, including detention and lethal force against al Qaeda fighters,” said Columbia law professor Matthew Waxman.
“It’s not that the idea of a war against al Qaeda is coming back, but that it was never gone — it’s just been more nuanced and refined by the Obama administration.”
The risk is now that when Bush’s Republicans take over the House of Representatives in January backed by a crushing 60-seat majority they will actively work against any moves to close Guantanamo, or cut presidential powers.
“The shifting balance of power in Congress may also give renewed impetus to legislative proposals that would further constrict basic due process rights and erode checks oan government power,” said Hafetz.
“I do think that the fate of civilian trials will certainly be more in jeopardy with the shift of the Congress,” agreed Andrea Prasow, from Human Rights Watch.
But she added the group still hoped to see Guantanamo Bay shut for good.