The future of Guantanamo under Biden

Despite making it a focal point of his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama failed to close the camp during his tenure.

DEMONSTRATORS IN prison jumpsuits and black hoods call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in a protest near the White House in January.  (photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
DEMONSTRATORS IN prison jumpsuits and black hoods call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, in a protest near the White House in January.
(photo credit: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS)
The coming year, 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is perhaps no greater reminder of the war on terror that followed those events than the images of shackled men in the now-iconic orange jumpsuits at Guantanamo Bay’s detention center. Since its inception, the camp has been a political nightmare for successive presidents.
Despite making it a focal point of his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama failed to close the camp during his tenure, even though he signed an executive order demanding its closure only days after taking office. His attempts were stymied largely by Congress.
However, it would be inaccurate to claim he was thwarted solely by congressional restrictions. Obama lacked consistency and commitment in forcing through his plans, realizing the benefits were less than expected. When Donald Trump entered the White House, he reversed Obama’s executive order and vowed to “load it up with some bad dudes.” This didn’t materialize. Instead, Guantanamo faded from the headlines, with progress stalling on the camp’s fate.
Now, with Joe Biden having won the American presidential election, there is renewed hope that his inauguration will herald some sort of resolution on the future of Guantanamo Bay and its remaining detainees, although in contrast to Barack Obama, Biden’s precise plans for the camp remain unclear.
Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was established during the Bush Administration in 2002, under the guise of holding those deemed “unlawful enemy combatants.” However, it was really an effort to exist outside the laws of international conflict. Since its inception, the prison has detained 780 men. According to a WikiLeaks disclosure, many of the detainees were there as the result of mistaken identity or tribal feuding, sold to US troops by bounty hunters. At least 22 detainees were under the age of 18 at the time of their capture, and there have been nine deaths since the facility opened.
The majority of those held there over the years have now been released and transferred overseas, with only 40 detainees remaining. Many returned to their home countries, whereas others were transferred to alternative third nations. However, even when cleared for release, there remained a battle to find a country willing to accept the detainees, as well as to find a country in which they were not at risk of torture or other abuses.
There have been reports of former detainees being tortured after being transferred home, and Human Rights Watch reported that a number a detainees endured torture and abuse by Russian authorities on their return, despite assurances of humane treatment and the fact that security protocols established before detainees were transferred focused on how detainees will be monitored back at home. Alongside security concerns, there is the complex problem of finding countries willing to accept responsibility for rehabilitating detainees who have been imprisoned for a significant period, never having been convicted of any crime.
Who’s left?
Of the 40 detainees still at Guantanamo, five have been cleared to leave and nine have been charged at military commissions. But the remaining 26 have not been charged, convicted or cleared for release, and are referred to as “forever prisoners,” held indefinitely with no real prospect of being set free. Of these, two of the most high-profile include Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the “self-confessed architect” of 9/11.
The former is alleged to have participated in the planning and preparation of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, whereas the latter has been implicated in the murder of the journalist Daniel Pearl; the 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia; and Richard Reid’s failed attempt to blow up a US passenger plane in 2001.
Sheikh Mohammed’s original trial date of January 2021 has, yet again, been postponed until at least August 2021, when the death penalty will be sought for him and his four 9/11 co-conspirators: Walid bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Ammar al-Baluchi and Mustafa al-Hawsawi. Their involvement in the 9/11 attacks ranges from being financial facilitators to providing logistical and operational support. If the trial does go ahead, it will be the one of the most significant in US history. However, many doubt it will take place as scheduled, given that the Military Commissions Process, under which detainees are tried, has been dogged by a multitude of problems, stemming from, among others, issues of health and procedure.
There also remains the thorny issue of the admissibility of evidence gleaned as the result of torture. The five 9/11 defendants were picked up between 2002 and 2004, when they were taken to CIA-run black-ops sites overseas, before being transferred to Guantanamo, where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and sleep deprivation.
The future
Guantanamo’s existence has been a financial, legal and moral nightmare. Rather than bolstering national security, it has proved to be ineffective and counterproductive. The cost of incarcerating detainees at Guantanamo is far greater than the cost of incarceration in an American maximum-security prison. The center has cost an estimated $6 billion to operate since opening, including $13 million per inmate, despite the fact that only one detainee has actually received a conviction. Moreover, its closure not only has financial implications, but would also have a high symbolic value.
Holding detainees outside of the law and judicial oversight has caused incalculable damage to the United States’ reputation, and weakened its image and standing on the international stage. Furthermore, the victims of 9/11 who lost loved ones have yet to receive any justice. The continued existence of Guantanamo is unlikely to change this. We will have to wait and see what Biden does when he takes office next month amid an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The author is a writer and researcher on global affairs and armed violence.