One-time mentors and fundraisers for President Barack Obama admonished him in an open letter on Thursday for his failure to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The president promised to shutter the prison in 2008 but has blamed congressionally imposed restrictions and diplomatic hurdles for his failure to do so over five years in office. In the letter, a bipartisan group of Chicago lawyers — many who know Obama personally — argue that the president has all the authority he needs now to transfer prisoners out and has no excuse for inaction.
Signatories include Chicago civil rights attorney Judson Miner, who gave Obama his first job out of law school, and Steven Cohen, a top bundler who raised more than $650,000 for the president during his two campaigns. Judge Abner Mikva, who offered a young Obama a clerkship and later became his mentor, also signed the letter. Some Republicans also joined, including former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson.
About half of the remaining detainees in the 12-year-old prison have been cleared for transfer to third-party countries. The president blocked dozens of these transfers when he issued a moratorium on sending detainees to Yemen, due to fears that jihadi groups were taking hold in the country and that it would be an unstable environment. Another group of 45 prisoners have not been charged with any crimes but are being detained indefinitely, with the promise that a review board will look at their cases periodically.
The lawyers argue that the 77 prisoners who have been cleared for release by the Obama administration should be repatriated or transferred to third-party countries immediately. In December, Congress lifted some of its restrictions to transferring these prisoners to other countries, but Gitmo detainees are still barred from traveling to U.S. soil for trial or release.
“As you know, half of the prisoners still at Guantanamo — 77 of the 155 there — were cleared for transfer over four years ago by your Joint Task Force, yet they remain at Guantanamo Bay!” the lawyers write. “They should be returned to their homes and families immediately.”
The president renewed his commitment to closing the prison last week, the first time he mentioned Guantanamo in a State of the Union speech .
Tom Sullivan, a prominent Chicago attorney and Obama supporter who signed the letter, said he became “bitterly disappointed” with how little action Obama took to close the prison.
“We want him to take the action that he keeps — in his beautiful speeches — insisting he’s going to take,” Sullivan said. “After a while you listen to enough of these speeches, and they’re so wonderful and you see no action — you begin to wonder what the heck is going on.”
Caitlyn Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the president remains "fully committed" to closing the prison. Congress lifting some of the restrictions on foreign transfers last December will provide the administration with "additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad consistent with our national security interests," she added.