The continued operation of the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration. The blame for indefinitely detaining dozens of men there doesn’t only rest on the president’s shoulders, however. Congress has made it impossible to move the men, suspected of terrorism, into U.S. prisons.
So, a sense of futile deja vu surrounded President Barack Obama on Tuesday as he again laid out his argument for closing Gitmo. The arguments — based on logic and the law — are the same ones he has used for years. But he’s no closer to shuttering the prison in Cuba today than he was when he announced his intention to do so as a candidate for president in 2008 or when he signed an executive order in 2009 calling for Gitmo’s closure “as soon as practicable.” With about 11 months left in his presidency, politicians eager to capitalize on Americans’ fear of terrorism continue to stand in the way.
The Guantanamo prison should have been closed years ago. Even President George W. Bush said he wanted it shuttered. Indefinite detention without charges violates the U.S. Constitution, as the Supreme Court ruled in several cases involving men held at Guantanamo. Diplomatically, continued operation of the prison is hard to justify to our allies and other countries. Opponents of closure argue the men still held there are dangerous and, if released, will return to terrorism. But just the existence of the prison is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS and al-Qaida. Operating the prison is also a huge financial drain, costing $445 million per year. That’s more than $4 million per prisoner.
“I am convinced that closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is in our national security interests,” Sen. Angus King said after Obama’s announcement. “The facility serves as a recruitment and propaganda tool for terrorist organizations, and its continued operation complicates relationships with some allies and partners.” He also cited the facility’s “exorbitant cost.”
Such appeals to rational thought fail in the face of a stronger emotion: fear. The central argument against closing the military prison is that the men still held there are too dangerous to be held on American soil.
So far, it has not mattered that reality debunks this argument. Other terrorists have been tried in U.S. courts and are held at a maximum security prison in Colorado. There have been no incidents while these men have been in custody, showing the U.S. judicial and correctional system are capable of handling the men who are still being held in Cuba.
When this argument was made in 2010, Congress ignored it, instead adding language to a defense spending bill barring the use of federal funds to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to facilities on U.S. soil or to build a new prison in the United States to house them.
There are currently 91 inmates at Guantanamo. Thirty-five have been cleared for transfer to other countries, a process that includes review by the Department of Defense and other agencies, though it is unclear whether other countries have agreed to take them, Vox reports. The cases of 10 inmates are in process before special military courts set up for Guantanamo detainees. The government has designated the cases of another 22 detainees as appropriate for the U.S. court system, though that process has yet to begin. The remaining detainees are in limbo, and the Obama administration has no specific plan for handling them.
Obama has few options. In his remarks he mentioned working with Congress to remove the ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons. The chances of this succeeding, especially in an election year, are slim. He could sign an executive order closing the prison and transferring its occupants to prisons in the United States. This would face stiff opposition and likely legal challenges from the states that host the prisons that would house them.
When Obama leaves office next year, all signs point to the departing president handing the Guantanamo conundrum to his successor.