Twenty years of Guantánamo: Can Biden finally shut down the US prison camp?
The United States has had a presence in Guantánamo Bay, on Cuba’s southeast coast, since the Spanish-American War of 1898, when marines landed there to wrest the island from Spanish colonial control.
Five years later, a nominally independent Cuban government leased the site to the United States as a naval base. The United States continues to pay the lease – an annual check for $4,085 – but Cuba has not accepted the funds since 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, and considers the base illegally occupied.
How did the prisoners end up there?
In the early 1990s, the United States often intercepted Cuban refugees at sea before they could apply for asylum. They were detained at Guantánamo, and litigation over them appears to confirm that the base is outside US jurisdiction.
This made it an attractive option when George W. Bush launched the “Global War on Terror” in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the United States was desperate for information from captured terrorists – and was prepared to “working in the dark”. side,” as then-Vice President Dick Cheney put it.
The Bush administration took the position that US legal protections did not apply to al-Qaeda or Taliban prisoners, but it did not want to test that theory on US soil. Thus, 100 wire cages were erected in just 96 hours at Guantánamo, which received its first detainees – 20 men captured in Afghanistan – on January 11, 2002, four months to the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center.
How did the world hear about the camp?
The Pentagon broke the news and released a soon-to-be-famous photo of the kneeling newcomers in orange jumpsuits, blackout goggles and chains, which was taken by a US Navy photographer. Guantánamo was supposed to be the army’s flagship detention camp, housing “the worst of the worst”, as its first commander, General Michael Lehnert, put it.
A spokeswoman for then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld released the photo because she believed it would assure the world that the detainees were being treated well. It had the exact opposite effect. As the camp filled up – Guantánamo has housed around 780 people since 2002, including 15 minors – it has become an international synonym for the follies and excesses of the war on terror.
How bad was that?
Wire cages were quickly replaced by cells made from shipping containers. Later, more conventional penal institutions appeared. In 2010, conditions were comparable to supermax prisons in the United States. In its early years, however, prisoners were subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse and humiliation, as well as other “enhanced interrogation techniques”, although the the most extreme sessions have taken place elsewhere on the CIA’s “black sites” (unofficial prison).
In June 2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a confidential report stating that the treatment of detainees in Cuba was “cruel, unusual and degrading”, amounting to “a form of torture”. In 2009, Susan Crawford, a Bush administration official, admitted that torture had taken place there. There have been many hunger strikes and cases of self-harm; and seven apparent suicides.
Who were the prisoners?
Early on, Rumsfeld complained in a memo that the camp was filled with “low level enemy combatants”. In fact, in 2006, a study of 517 detainees found that 55% had not even been determined to have committed hostile acts against US forces or their allies; only 8% had been clearly identified as members of al-Qaeda.
Most had been captured in Afghanistan, where the United States had offered large rewards – “enough to feed your family for life”, as one leaflet put it – in exchange for “Arab terrorists”. As a result, foreign travelers and people’s personal enemies were drawn into the net.
However, in 2006 a number of “high-value detainees” were transferred there from CIA black sites, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks, and Hambali, a member of the Indonesian Islamist group who carried out the Bali bombings in 2002.
Why hasn’t it been closed?
In the 2008 elections, Barack Obama, John McCain and outgoing President Bush all agreed that Guantánamo should be closed. Obama attempted to do so, by executive order, on his second day in office. But Pentagon slowness, Republican opposition and, arguably, Obama’s lack of political audacity meant the effort failed.
There were overwhelming legal difficulties. Thanks to the torture and the extra-legal nature of the enterprise, prisoners could not be tried in civilian courts. The best solution, military tribunals, raised constitutional issues and lacked credibility.
At the same time, many prisoners could not be repatriated, either because they would be in danger in their country of origin or because they were considered a security risk there. The Obama administration has been reduced to haggling with third countries to take them.
What is the situation now?
Of a total of 780 detainees, only 12 have been charged and two convicted (by military courts). The trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others is now in its tenth year of preliminary hearings. Under President Bush, 500 inmates were transferred out of prison or released. Under Obama, 197 detainees were repatriated or resettled in third countries.
Under Trump, who promised to fill the site with “bad guys”, another was moved. There are now 39 detainees at Guantánamo. President Biden also wants to shut it down, but his options are limited: Most Republicans still view it, in Rumsfeld’s words, as “the least worst place” to keep such suspects. In theory, some could be judged by other countries. Legal avenues could be found to convict others in the United States. In the meantime, it will last: the Pentagon has asked for 88 million dollars to build a hospice for aging prisoners.