CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – President Barack Obama’s renewed request to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, confirms what the detainees have already shown with their hunger strike: Permanent detention at the U.S. naval station isn’t viable as a matter of practicality or conscience.
It’s easy to blame Congress for standing in the way of a rational solution. But if the Obama administration would take some of the legal ingenuity that it has applied in justifying indefinite detention and apply it instead to closing the island prison, maybe something could actually be done, despite the organized madness that is our constitutional separation of powers.
Start with the most fundamental reason that Obama should be able to act unilaterally. The president is commander in chief, and the Guantanamo detainees were all held pursuant to the executive power to wage war. The Obama administration says the detainees are being held as, in effect, prisoners of war pursuant to the Geneva Conventions, until the end of hostilities with al-Qaida — whenever that may be.
So why doesn’t the president, who has the absolute power to hold and release the detainees, have the authority to move them around according to his sound judgment?
To deepen the argument beyond executive power, the president is also in charge of foreign affairs. Keeping the detainees at Guantanamo is very costly to international relations, since most nations see the prison there as a reminder of the era of waterboarding and abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Surely the president should be able to salvage the U.S.’s reputation without being held hostage by Congress?
The answer from Congress would have several elements. First, Congress has the power to enact a law defining who can come into the U.S., and the American public doesn’t want the detainees in the country either for trial or in a new Supermax facility. Second, Congress has the power to declare war and could conceivably assert that this should include the right to tell the president how to treat prisoners. Then there’s the power of the purse: Congress could make things difficult by declining to authorize funds for a suitable new stateside detention facility.
Faced with a standoff between two branches, the system allows an orderly answer: turning to the third branch, the courts, to resolve the conflict. Since 2003, the Supreme Court has taken an interest in Guantanamo, deciding on the statutory and constitutional rights extended there, and vetting procedures for detainee hearings and trials.
Along the way, it has shown an equal-opportunity willingness to second-guess the executive — as when President George W. Bush denied hearings to detainees — and Congress, which passed a law denying habeas corpus to the prisoners.
How could the court get involved? The first step would be for the Obama administration to show some of the legal self-confidence it did in justifying drone strikes against U.S. citizens or in ignoring the War Powers Resolution in the Libya military intervention.
Likewise, it could assert a right of control over where the detainees should be held. And if the president’s lawyers are worried about Bush-style assertions of plenary executive power (which, for the record, didn’t concern them when it came to drones or Libya), there is a path they could follow that would hew closer to their favored constitutional style.
The reasoning could look like this: The president’s war power must be exercised pursuant to the laws of war embodied in the Geneva Conventions. And though Guantanamo once conformed to those laws — as the administration asserted in 2009 — it no longer does.
The conditions are too makeshift to manage the continuing prisoner resistance, and indefinite detention in an indefinite war with no enemy capable of surrendering is pressing on the bounds of lawful POW detention.
Congress doesn’t have the authority to force the president to violate the laws of war. Yet by blocking Obama from closing Guantanamo, that is just what Congress is doing. What’s more, he has the inherent authority to ensure that we are complying with our treaty obligations.
This argument isn’t a certain winner. And there would still be the problem of whether the president could put the detainees in an existing prison. But at least spelling this out would put the fear of God into Congress. Continued congressional resistance would also trigger a court case.
The president could have a tough time convincing five justices. According to the framework developed by Justice Robert Jackson in the Truman-era steel seizure case, and used today by the courts, the president’s power is at its “lowest ebb” when Congress has expressly barred him from acting.
But even at ebb tide there is still an ocean, and lots of things Congress can’t stop the president from doing. Complying with his legal obligations should surely be at the top of the list.
The Supreme Court might want to duck this controversial issue. But there is a precedent for the court wading in where Congress is blocking necessary action. In the Cold War, lawful racial segregation in the U.S. became costly as a matter of foreign relations. President Harry Truman desegregated the military, but he lacked the authority to overturn state-based discrimination.
The Senate filibuster, originally born of slavery, ensured that Congress wouldn’t pass a civil-rights bill that could have solved the problem. That left the high court — which gave us Brown v. Board of Education. In that case, the U.S. — as friend of the court — quoted Secretary of State Dean Acheson to the effect that segregation was being used as propaganda by the Soviet Union.
It is absurd that the commander in chief can’t do what he believes is in the country’s national interests when it comes to detainees. Win, lose or draw, it is time to get around Congress. If ordinary politics won’t do the trick, going to the courts may be the best option — because it is the only one.
Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of the forthcoming “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed here are his own.