STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One of President Obama's first acts in office was signing an order closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Four years later, the prison remains open. NPR's Jackie Northam looked into the reasons why.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On January 22nd, 2009 a newly inaugurated President Obama made good on a campaign promise.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and determine how to deal with those who have been held there.
NORTHAM: President Obama and his administration believed Guantanamo was a symbol of contentious counterterrorism policies by his predecessor, George W. Bush; ones which included harsh interrogation tactics, rendition and indefinite detention.
John Bellinger, a senior legal official in the Bush administration, says the new administration miscalculated how difficult it would be to close Guantanamo.
JOHN BELLINGER: I think part of it was that a number of officials in the administration had really come to believe that a lot of innocent people were being held and that they could be released. And that the remaining could be tried in federal court, and that this really all this could be done easily in a year.
NORTHAM: But Bellinger says the Obama administration quickly learned that it wasn't so easy to transfer some of the roughly 240 prisoners still held at that time, back to their home countries or to third nations. A review by the Obama administration found that probably only two dozen of the detainees could be successfully prosecuted in a federal court, because of weak or little available evidence. And that about 50 prisoners were deemed too dangerous to ever release.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, says that around the same time, Congress began pushing back on plans to move some of the detainees to prisons on the U.S. mainland.
BENJAMIN WITTES: When actually confronted with the question of do you want to close Guantanamo, if that means bringing a lot of detainees to the United States, the keep Guantanamo constituency was actually much more politically powerful than the administration had anticipated.
NORTHAM: Six months into the new administration, a democratically controlled Congress passed legislation that prevented the president from moving any Guantanamo detainee into the U.S. or to other countries. That continues today. Wittes says with other competing priorities on the boil, such as a stimulus plan and health care, President Obama had to decide if closing Guantanamo was a priority.
WITTES: So, within a few months, the question became how much political energy and capital was the president willing to invest in getting it done.
NORTHAM: And how much was he willing to invest?
WITTES: None, as it turned out.
NORTHAM: Andrea Prasow, a counter-terrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, says President Obama's unwillingness or inability to fight hard to close Guantanamo has been incredibly disappointing.
ANDREA PRASOW: I, like many people in the human rights community, took the president at his word when he said he would close Guantanamo. But the fact that not only is it open but there's no pathway towards its closure, and towards ending indefinite detention, I think is really one of the great tragedies of Obama's first term.
NORTHAM: Still, sentiment about closing the remote prison camp or bringing detainees to the U.S. is as strong now as it was back then. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office says that the detainees could be transferred to U.S. prisons safely.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina disagreed.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Simply stated, the American people don't want to close Guantanamo Bay, which is an isolated military-controlled facility, to bring these crazy bastards that want to kill us all to the United States.
NORTHAM: Roughly 165 detainees still remain at Guantanamo. Military trials for five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks are due to resume early February.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.