In August 2007 candidate Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo prison if elected president. Obama’s general election opponent John McCain was also in favor of closing the prison.
In the first hours of his presidency, Obama suspended the military commissions system set up by the Bush Administration to try prisoners at Guantanamo in order to review the process and see if there were any changes he wanted to make.
On January 22, 2009, during his first week as president, Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year. The order also created a task force composed of high level members of the Obama Administration to determine whether each prisoner should be transferred, released, prosecuted, or held in indefinite detention. The executive order clearly allowed for the possibility that some prisoners may be chosen to be held in indefinite detention without ever being tried.
One of the problems the task force faced was the difficulty of finding the physical documents about each prisoner.
The Obama Administration planned to release two of the Uighur prisoners in northern Virginia, where there is a Uighur community. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell opposed the plan, saying, “By releasing trained terrorists into civilian communities in the United States, the administration will, by definition, endanger the American people.” In May 2009 Obama abandoned the plan. That decision made it much more unlikely that third countries would agree to take Guantanamo prisoners due to the US’s own unwillingness to do so. It also showed Congress that he was not willing to fight for the measures necessary to close the prison.
Later in May 2009 the Senate voted 90 to 6 to remove funding to close Guantanamo from a military spending bill. House Democrats had already removed the funding from their version of the bill. When the bill passed in June, it prevented the president from transferring any prisoner to the US except for prosecution.
The day after the Senate vote to remove the funding from the bill, Obama gave a major national security speech. In it he announced that he would bring back military commissions, with some modifications. He also announced that he would continue to hold some Guantanamo prisoners in indefinite detention without trial.
In November 2009 Obama admitted that he would miss his one year deadline for closing Guantanamo.
In December 2009 the Obama Administration announced its plan to buy a prison in Thompson, Illinois that would hold some of the Guantanamo prisoners. The prisoners the Administration planned to imprison there would be held in indefinite detention or would be tried by military commissions.
Mitch McConnell said of the plan, “The Administration has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping terrorists off our shores in the secure facility in Cuba.”
Later in December 2009 a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a plane heading to Detroit using a bomb hidden in his underwear. The US government believes that the plot was directed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out of Yemen. In January 2010 Obama imposed a moratorium on transferring Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen for fear that if the released men were members of Al Qaeda or had terrorist sympathies they could easily join the active branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Later in January 2010 the Obama Administration task force on Guantanamo released its results. Of the 164 prisoners currently at Guantanamo, 83 were cleared for release, 47 were designated to be held in indefinite detention without trial, and 34 were referred for prosecution.
The first person tried by a military commission under the Obama Administration was the Al Qaeda child soldier Omar Khadr. Khadr accepted a plea deal in October 2010 to serve one more year at Guantanamo and 7 years in a prison in Canada.
In November 2010 a civilian jury found Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Ghailani guilty of conspiracy to destroy federal buildings and property. Ghailani admitted buying the TNT and truck used in the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania. However, the jury acquitted Ghailani of all of the other 284 counts. The prosecution was prohibited by the judge from using a witness the government learned about the witness as a result of coercive interrogation. The witness said he sold Ghailani the TNT. In January 2011 he was sentenced to life in prison. As a result of the verdict, Republicans criticized Obama’s decision to try some Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts before the sentence was even announced.
In December 2010 Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011, a bill that funds the military, with a provision banning the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to the US for any purpose, including trial. Obama signed the law in January 2011. Similar measures passed in the 2012 and 2013 NDAA as well. Obama did not veto any of these bills.
In October 2012 former Guantanamo prisoner Salim Hamdan’s conviction by a military commission was overturned by the DC Court of Appeals. The court ruled so because material support for terrorism, the crime he was convicted of, was not a crime that could be tried by a military commission at the time he committed the actions that served as the basis for his conviction.
This ruling meant that the prisoners that prosecutors planned to try for material support for terrorism and conspiracy could no longer be convicted in a military commission. The prisoners could not be tried in civilian courts because of the prohibition against transferring the prisoners to the United States in the NDAA. So instead they will be held in indefinite detention without ever receiving a trial.
In January 2013 the state department reassigned Daniel Fried, the special envoy for closing Guantanamo, and said that they would not replace him.
At the start of 2013 opponents of the prison were incredibly disheartened. The prisoners were as well. In February they began a hunger strike at Guantanamo.