A group of 20 suspected terrorists arrived in Guantanamo Bay 10 years ago today, inaugurating what would become the United States’ most controversial prison system and a lasting legacy of President George W. Bush’s administration.
Since then, what began as open-air cages has turned into a full-fledged detainee center, housing nearly 800 prisoners at its peak. Today, 171 detainees remain in the detention center, some of them deemed too dangerous to release and others with nowhere to go.
Opponents of the detention center today marked its 10-year anniversary with protests from Belgium to Washington, D.C. Protestors led by Amnesty International planned to march from the White House to the Supreme Court to rally against what they say is a facility that “has come to symbolize 10 years of a systematic failure by the USA to respect human rights.”
“Until the USA addresses these detentions as a human rights issue, the legacy of Guantanamo will live on whether or not the detention facility there is closed down,” said Amnesty International’s researcher Rob Freer.
Another group, Witness to Torture, attempted to form a “human chain” from the White House to the Capitol and multiple other groups planned similar events.
The detainees themselves are reportedly protesting in quiet. Ramzi Kassem, a professor of law at City University of New York who counsels some detainees, told the Washington Post that they are planning various “peaceful protests.” Some will go on a hunger strike for three days, while others will sleep in the recreation areas instead of returning to their cells for the four-hour nightly lockdown, he said.
President Obama signed an executive order Jan. 22, 2010 – one of his first as commander-in-chief – to shut down the detainee center that has become in some ways synonymous with water-boarding, a torture technique. But his plan to move the detainees to federal prisons on U.S. soil was met with fierce backlash on both sides of the political aisle. Even Democrats aligned with their Republican counterparts in refusing to allow the president and Attorney General Eric Holder to bring detainees into the United States for prosecution.
The administration had wanted to try five detainees alleged to be behind the Sept. 11 attacks in federal court in New York, but the plan was shelved in April because of the heavy resistance.
Instead of starting a dialogue as the president had hoped, the issue became a “political hot potato,” said Vanderbilt law professor Vijay Padmanabhan, who served as the State Department’s chief counsel on Guantanamo.
“Politicians on both sides have decided to demagogue the issue to avoid having a discussion about who we should be detaining and how long we will be detaining them,” he added. “All of those are very important legal and policy questions.”
Unable to convince even his own party members of the merits of transferring detainees, or find host countries for some of the detainees who are cleared for transfer, the president eventually gave in and allowed military tribunals to resume at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The National Defense Authorization Act, which Obama signed on New Year’s Eve, effectively ends any chances of closing the controversial prison. For the second year in a row, it bars the Department of Defense from transferring detainees to the continental United States, or using funds to construct or expand facilities for housing them. It also tightens the conditions under which detainees can be transferred to other countries.
Congressional opposition that tied the president’s hands is something he “has yet to be able to overcome,” Padmanabhan said. “It’s a great challenge. There really hasn’t been as solution identified to this problem.”
Of the remaining detainees, 46 are considered too dangerous to release. But 89 of the total number of men being held have been cleared for transfer or release. About half of that group has nowhere to go because they are Yemeni. Obama stopped the transfer of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo in January, 2010, after “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound flight. He was found to have been trained by al Qaeda groups in Yemen.
Since 2002, a little more than 600 detainees have either been transferred out of Guantanamo Bay or have died in custody. Only six detainees have been convicted.
Some experts say the detainee center continues to hurt U.S. interests around the world, a sentiment Obama repeatedly espoused on the campaign trail.
Congress’s “not in my backyard” attitude has “effectively frozen in place one of the most counterproductive aspects of our national security policy – and given Al Qaeda just what it wants,” David Cole, author and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center wrote in the New York Times.” Congress has assured that the United States will continue to be better known around the world for Guantánamo Bay than for the Statue of Liberty.”
But some still believe the detainee center serves an important purpose.
“The United States is almost continuously at war with other countries and groups like Al Qaeda, and it needs some place to house prisoners picked up on the battlefield,” wrote Eric Posner, author and a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “If Guantánamo were closed, the U.S. military would need to hold those prisoners someplace else.”
The Obama administration continues to insist that closing the detainee center remains a top priority. After all, it was the president’s top promise as a candidate in 2008. But the administration in many ways has come to terms with the reality, acknowledging that breaking down the wall of resistance from Congress will be difficult.
“The commitment that the president has to closing Guantanamo Bay is as firm today as it was during the campaign. … We will continue to abide by that commitment and work towards its fulfillment,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday. “I think this is a process that faces obstacles that we’re all aware of and we will continue to work through it.”
Observers say it’s unlikely that a resolution will be reached on the detainees’ fate anytime soon or that the administration will make this a priority issue, especially amid the domestic challenge of lifting the economy and employment.
“I suspect we’re going to see this facility open not just with the start of the next administration, or the second term of this administration, but five, 10, 15, years down,” Padmanabhan said. “There’s a recognition within the administration that at this point in time there just isn’t any political consensus in the United States to do anything with the facility. The president is still saying he wants to close the facility but is essentially powerless to do so.”