White House: Closing Gitmo a 'Hasty Decision'

White House: Closing Gitmo a 'Hasty Decision'

By David Paul Kuhn - May 20, 2009

Updated: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was a “hasty decision,” in his daily press briefing with reporters. But he later backtracked in the briefing and said that he was referring to decisions made under George W. Bush.

The White House spokesman was asked whether it was a "mistake" to request the resources to close Guantanamo Bay without a plan.

"It was a mistake to set up something that became a rallying cry for enemies around the world and to hope for so long that we could simply continue to perpetuate the theory of keeping detainees there while the courts ruled otherwise," Gibbs responded.

"I don't doubt that the President--and I think he'll say this tomorrow--that we've made some hasty decisions that are now going to take some time to unwind. And closing Guantanamo Bay obviously is one of those decisions," he added.

But later in the briefing Gibbs was asked a follow up question on what looked like a startling admission. Gibbs said that he meant that the "hasty decisions" were made by the previous administration.

"And you said hasty," a reporter asked, “you talked about hasty decisions tomorrow, that it's going to take some time to unwind. Are you talking about the President's hasty decisions or the previous administration's hasty decision as it regards Guantanamo?”

"No, no, no, I'm sorry," Gibbs said. "My boss might want to know the answer to that. No, no, I'm discussing decisions that were made in the previous administration."

The reporter asked again, “You were not referring to the executive order?”

“No, no, no,” Gibbs said.

So either the White House spokesman misspoke or said too much. That’s for the public to decide. To some critics, Gibbs comment might evoke Michael Kinsley's famous political adage. Kinsley defined a gaffe in Washington as a moment when someone tells the truth.  

Guantanamo Bay has become a political minefield for the president. President Obama’s decision to close the controversial detention center in the early days of his presidency was met with adulation on the political left and earned headlines in newspapers across the world. It was seen as a clear break from Bush-era national security policy.

But recently Obama has broken with liberals over his decision to continue Bush-era military commissions to try Guantanamo Bay prisoners and his decision not to release photographs allegedly depicting U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. To an extent, this split with the political left is indicative of the difference between campaigning and governing.

Gibbs’ gaffe Wednesday (Click here to see video) may have only further aggravated large portions of Obama's political base. Liberals rallied to Obama during the campaign in part because of his strong criticism of George W. Bush's "war on terror."

White House critics have long argued that closing Guantanamo Bay was one policy shift easier said than done.

Gibbs reversal, on what looked like a mega reversal, comes on the eve of a major national security speech by Obama. Obama is expected to address, in part, Senate Democrats' opposition to funding the closure of Gitmo. Democrats have withheld funding closure until the White House offers a clear plan on how the detention center will be shut down and importantly, where detainees will be sent.

The closure of Guantanamo Bay has quickly turned into a "not in my backyard" issue. No U.S. representative wants to explain why a Gitmo detainee was allowed to live in his or her district. In the same vein, Obama has found U.S. allies no more willing to accept detainees. France and Britain each accepted one former detainee. There are about 240 detainees at Guantánamo Bay and 30 are clear for release.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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