Administration dragging feet on civil liberties

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has pretty much confirmed what most observers have taken to be a done deal, anyway. Despite President Barack Obama’s campaign promises, the prison at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba for detainees in the undeclared, misnamed, and ill-conceived “war on terror” will remain open for the foreseeable future. And, despite concerns about the effects on judicial practices, a number of prisoners are likely to remain detained without charges and without prisoner-of-war status for the duration of the “war on terror,” which almost by definition means they will never leave Guantanamo.

To be sure, the Obama administration for awhile seemed somewhat serious about trying to close Guantanamo, which has become a symbol of U.S. neglect of the rule of law and its highest ideals and a recruiting tool for al-Qaida and other jihadist organizations. And to be sure, irresponsible fear-mongering, mostly by Republicans, about allowing Guantanamo prisoners to be tried or imprisoned on U.S. soil (where U.S. law might be more directly applicable?) played a big role in creating political difficulties for the effort to close Guantanamo and handle its prisoners in a more orderly and lawful manner.

There are high-security federal prisons in the United States where prisoners from Gitmo could be detained and pose virtually no danger to other prisoners or to the community at large. Terrorist suspects have been tried successfully in civilian courts and sentenced appropriately. The impulse to hold prisoners at a base on foreign soil was from the beginning an effort to evade normal American judicial procedures on the theory that post-9/11 terrorism posed such a unique threat that it could not be handled in traditional American ways. That theory was false from the outset, but establishing the prison at Guantanamo created a situation that has proven difficult to walk back to normalcy.

While Republicans and other fear-mongers deserve a good deal of the blame for making it difficult to close the prison at Guantanamo, the action (or inaction) of the Obama administration when faced with political difficulties has become something of a pattern. If an issue involves expansion of government power (see health care, climate change regulation by administrative fiat, etc.) Obama can be persistent. If the issue is restoration of civil liberties abrogated by the Bush administration (see Patriot Act, unwarranted searches) or restoration of due process or judicial norms, this administration tends to throw up its hands and say it is just too hard.

Bottom line: Government power keeps growing, and liberty keeps shrinking.