GEORGE BUSH wanted to close it. So did John McCain. And Barack Obama promised to do so within a year of taking office. But nearly three years since then, and ten years after the first inmates stepped through its barbed-wired gates in January 2002, the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay remains stubbornly open.
It is, perhaps, the most glaring failure of Mr Obama’s first term. On his second full day in office, surrounded by 16 retired generals and admirals, he signed the order to close the facility that he said had probably created more terrorists than it ever detained. With majorities in both chambers of Congress he looked set to make good on his pledge. There was just one problem: the president had a timetable, but no plan.
“Where are we going to send them?” asked Mr McCain after the order was signed. His Republican colleagues warned that dangerous terrorists could end up in local jails. In fact, Mr Obama had in mind a facility in Illinois similar to America’s “supermax” prisons, from which no one has ever escaped. But right-wingers stoked public dread and polls soon showed significant disapproval of the closure. In the face of such opposition, and with little support from a White House distracted by health-care reform, the Democrats quickly backed down. In a series of votes, both parties signalled their displeasure with the president’s policy, blocking funds for Guantánamo’s closure and banning the transfer of detainees to American soil.
The White House fought back, defeating an effort aimed at stopping the government from putting the alleged architects of 9/11 on trial in federal court. Then came its boldest move. In November 2009 Eric Holder, the attorney general, announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators would face justice in Manhattan. The trial would show that America’s civilian courts could handle even Guantánamo’s worst. But just two months later, amid mounting security concerns and rising political pressure, the effort fell apart. Once again, the administration had underestimated the political and logistical challenges posed by its policies.
Succumbing to the obstacles placed in his path, in March last year the president lifted his moratorium on new military-commission trials at Guantánamo and instituted a system for holding some detainees indefinitely. Civil-liberties groups called it an admission of defeat. PolitiFact, an outfit that assesses the accuracy of statements made by politicians, declared Mr Obama’s campaign promise “broken”.