Why prison camps not a campaign issue this time

In 2007, Mitt Romney set himself apart from the pack of presidential candidates by staking out an extreme position on the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He said he wanted to “grow them” at a time when both Barack Obama and John McCain were advocating closure to improve America’s standing in the world.

This time around, it’s not even part of the presidential campaign conversation.

When asked, spokesmen for the candidates couldn’t muster anything more than canned talking points — Romney will keep them, Obama still wants to close them. And there’s no evidence that either man has raised the issue along the campaign trail where the economy is the chief concern but national security is never far behind.

The most prominent mention so far came in Clint Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “Why close it? We spent so much money on it.”

Congress’ straight-jacketing legislation may explain it. Once Obama sought to make good on his 2008 campaign pledge by ordering his administration to close the camps by Jan. 22, 2010, Congress replied with a succession of financial and bureaucratic restrictions on the prison and the prisoners that today make a policy debate on the topic largely theoretical.

“It’s been neutralized as an issue for both sides. Whether they like it or not, the reality is there will be detainees detained at Guantánamo Bay for as long as you can see into the future,” said Steve Schmidt, senior campaign advisor in 2008 to McCain.

Congressional restrictions also forced the Obama administration to retreat on Attorney General Eric Holder’s vow to hold a civilian Sept. 11 terror trial in Manhattan, not far from 9/11’s Ground Zero. The capital case is instead being prosecuted before a military commission at the Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Guantánamo is “not on the mind of out-of-work Ohio auto workers who may determine the outcome of this election,” Schmidt said. “Scoring points on Guantánamo Bay denies you the opportunity to score points on the economy. If Mitt Romney can’t make an economic case he won’t win the election.”

For the record, White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said there’s no change in the presidential policy that seeks to close the camps that cost $800,000 a year per prisoner: “The president has made clear that the policy of this administration is to do what is clearly in our national security interest — to close the detention facility at Guantánamo.”

Getting there is more complicated. The Democrats’ 2008 platform bluntly pledged closure. The Guantánamo passage in the 2012 platform is more nuanced: “We are substantially reducing the population at Guantánamo Bay without adding to it,” it says. “And we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values.”

Neither the 2008 nor 2012 Republican platforms make mention of Guantánamo, meaning Romney’s most detailed vision comes from a May 2007 Fox News debate among McCain, Romney and Rudolph Giuliani at the University of South Carolina.

“I don’t want them on our soil,” Romney said then. “I want them on Guantánamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. I don’t want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is we ought to double Guantánamo.”

The Romney campaign won’t elaborate on what the Massachusetts governor wanted to double that day, when the Pentagon held more than 380 captives.

But since then, the Pentagon has downsized the detention center population by half.

The Bush administration transferred more than 125, the majority to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Then the Obama administration transferred and resettled another 79, many across Europe and to such far-flung places as Palau, Cape Verde and Bermuda. Five captives died.

Today’s Guantánamo prisoner population is 166.

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