Detention & Guantanamo

A Strange Meeting of the Minds

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 10:35 PM

I had an odd meeting of the minds today---with Glenn Greenwald.

After I posted my bewildered comments on President Obama's Guantanamo remarks this afternoon, I received the following email from Greenwald:

So glad you wrote this---it's been driving me crazy forever:

Even though you're writing it with a different motive than I have (I think you're mad that Obama is slamming a policy you believe in---indefinite detention---and then are quite rightly pointing out that he shouldn't be doing so since he supports such a policy), the key point is constantly ignored: before Congress did anything, Obama's plan was simply to move Guantanamo, not close it, and keep its defining system of indefinite detention.

I just don't know how to get people to understand this. They've been told so often that Obama tried to close Gitmo but Congress stopped him that they can't realize that, though narrowly true, it's extremely misleading.

I find myself entirely sympathetic to Greenwald's point here. Greenwald has, for one thing, correctly identified the source of my bewilderment at Obama's position. Obama is unwilling to give up the benefits of Guantanamo---the ability to detain enemy fighters and leaders outside of the criminal justice system---but he wants nonetheless to partake of the rhetoric of its delegitimization. I believe in detention in some circumstances, but I also think we need to be honest about what those circumstances are and what makes detention legitimate within them; those of us who believe in detention need to be up front about where we differ from people like Greenwald, who reject it on principle. For Obama to talk in the language of the ACLU when what he means is that he wishes to hold fewer people than are now at Guantanamo and to do so at Location B, rather than at Location A, is profoundly dishonest---and more importantly, it has the effect of delegitimizing a policy to which Obama is, in fact, committed.

I respect Greenwald's right to dissent from Obama administration policies. I do not respect Obama's right to dissent from his own administration's policies.

One can, I suppose, read Obama's remarks more generously than either I or Greenwald are inclined to. One could read them as meaning that Obama wishes (a) to close Guantanamo and hold detainees somewhere else (b) for as long as it takes to wind down the war in its entirety, and that (c) he will then release all uncharged detainees because (d) he does not believe in preventive detention beyond the end of hostilities. If what Obama means here is nothing more than that he wants the congressional transfer restrictions lifted and believes his authority to detain under the laws of war end with termination of hostilities, I agree with him on both points.

But this strikes me as an excessively generous reading of what he said. If Obama had meant that he wants to bring to an end detention---which is legitimate as long as hostilities continue---as he brings hostilities to a close, he could have said as much very simply. He didn't need to go on a rant about how much we had learned about how to handle terrorists over the last ten years. He didn't need to wring his hands about how much damage Guantanamo does to America's image. He could simply have stated that detention under the laws of war is proper as long as hostilities continue, that he hopes to bring hostilities to a close in short order, that releases will be inevitable at that point, and that Congress should give him more flexibility with respect to transfers now. Instead, he described himself as fighting against a policy he has, in fact, adopted. Ironically, in using Greenwald-type rhetoric to mask Wittes-type policy, he fooled neither Greenwald nor Wittes.