Symbolism Only Goes So Far

Today Barack Obama issued an entirely symbolic executive order, directing that the terrorist detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay be closed within one year. Gitmo, of course, was created in answer to the question, What are we going to do with captured terrorists? Now, with that facility slated for closure, the question arises once more.

It arose, in fact, in Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ first press conference today. I found this exchange somewhat amusing:

QUESTION: Robert, how can you say the executive order on Guantanamo Bay — you can say clearly made America safer today, when it doesn’t seem like you really have a plan yet about where the detainees are going to go?

GIBBS: Well, one of the — I think one of the things that the commission and one of the things that the executive orders does is begin the process whereby the current administration can examine what exactly is going on and who exactly is there. …

That’s why I was careful in saying that the process by which this will undertake over the course of up to one year will determine, as Greg laid out, who’s involved in what status of detainee, which group that they’re involved in, and ultimately study how best to — to deal with them in a way that protects our country, protects our values, and administers justice.

QUESTION: So these are terror suspects, and the American people are hearing, “Washington’s going to study it.” They’re going to find out for a few more months, what are we going to do with these detainees? So what…

GIBBS: Well, it is day two. …

QUESTION: No, but he was talking about it on the campaign for months, on Guantanamo Bay.

QUESTION: But the bottom line is that you’ve been talking about it — the president talked about it on the campaign trail. People have studied this for a long time. And you’re now signing the executive order without a plan for where the detainees will be. What assurances can you give the…

GIBBS: No. No, we’ve signed an executive order to establish the plan for what happens.

QUESTION: But what assurance can you give the American people that these detainees just won’t wind up out on the streets, won’t go back to their home countries and launch new terror attacks?

GIBBS: I can assure them that that — all of — all of what you just enumerated will be undertaken and studied as part of a commission to look into these very complex, very detailed questions.

So, in other words, Obama’s order accomplishes nothing other than to kick the can down the road. The question of what to do with the terrorists will be “studied”–and, by the way, it’s now a “very complex, very detailed question.”

Obama also ordered that the CIA be limited in its interrogations of captured terrorists to the small menu of techniques identified in the Army’s Field Manual. This makes little sense; the Field Manual is intended to instruct soldiers with little or no training as interrogators in questioning enemy soldiers captured on the battlefield, conditions that have nothing to do with the highly specialized case of trained CIA experts trying to get potentially life-or-death information from leaders of al Qaeda and similar groups.

This topic, too, came up in today’s press conference, when a reporter asked, in effect, Are you kidding?

QUESTION: Just so the American people have an understanding, if, for example, U.S. forces were to capture Osama bin Laden or someone less well known, but of operational significance, are they to understand, the American people, that only the Field Manual and the Field Manual only will be the interrogation method used to interrogate a target as valuable potentially as Osama bin Laden or someone of that operational significance?

GIBBS: Well, as it relates to your first question, let me get some guidance from — from Greg and members of the NSC.

Today’s executive order can charitably be described as meaningless, but it illuminates the least attractive side of Barack Obama: his tendency to combine self-righteousness with lack of seriousness.

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