Five Years After Obama Vowed to Shut It Down, Guantanamo Bay Remains Open

The pace of the push to close the controversial camp has slowed in recent years, and doesn’t show signs of picking up.

A U.S. military guard tower stands on the perimeter of a detainee camp at the U.S. detention center for 'enemy combatants' on September 16, 2010 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Jan. 22, 2014, 7:30 a.m.

On this day in 2009, Pres­id­ent Obama is­sued an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that called for the Guantanamo Bay de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity to be closed with­in a year. A month later, in his first State of the Uni­on ad­dress, the pres­id­ent told Amer­ic­ans he had ordered the clos­ure of the con­tro­ver­sial camp in Cuba, and “will seek swift and cer­tain justice for cap­tured ter­ror­ists.”

Guantanamo, which re­mains open, has not been men­tioned in the pres­id­ent’s an­nu­al speech since.

The pro­posed road to clos­ure has been ar­du­ous and slow. In Decem­ber 2009, Obama signed a pres­id­en­tial memor­andum or­der­ing At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er and De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates to ac­quire an Illinois state pris­on, which would serve as a re­place­ment for Guantanamo. In May 2010, Con­gress blocked fund­ing for the pris­on there, and all fu­ture re­place­ment de­ten­tion fa­cil­it­ies in the U.S.

By June 2010, the push to shut­ter the de­ten­tion camp began to lose steam. Polit­ic­al op­pos­i­tion and com­pet­ing na­tion­al pri­or­it­ies, The New York Times wrote, made it un­likely the pres­id­ent would ful­fill his prom­ise be­fore the end of 2013.

In March 2011, Obama signed an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der that called for the cre­ation of a re­view pro­cess for de­tain­ees. It also re­in­stated mil­it­ary tribunals for pris­on­ers, which had been hal­ted dur­ing the pres­id­ent’s first week in of­fice.

A failed plan to pro­sec­ute 9/11 mas­ter­mind Khal­id Sheik Mo­hammed in fed­er­al court in­stead of at Guantanamo in April 2011 led The Wash­ing­ton Post to de­scribe the situ­ation as “the ef­fect­ive aban­don­ment of the pres­id­ent’s prom­ise to close the mil­it­ary de­ten­tion cen­ter.”

In Janu­ary 2013, the State De­part­ment closed the of­fice tasked with hand­ling the clos­ure of Guantanamo Bay.

Last month, the Mar­ine ma­jor gen­er­al who helped es­tab­lish the pris­on said Guantanamo should have nev­er been opened, and called on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to shut it down. “I be­came more and more con­vinced that many of the de­tain­ees should nev­er have been sent in the first place,” Mi­chael Lehnert, now re­tired, wrote in the De­troit Free Press.

On Tues­day, 31 re­tired U.S. mil­it­ary of­ficers urged the pres­id­ent to fol­low through on his prom­ise to close the pris­on and speed up ef­forts to move de­tain­ees else­where. “As long as it re­mains open, Guantanamo will un­der­mine Amer­ica’s se­cur­ity and status as a na­tion where hu­man rights and the rule of law mat­ter,” they wrote in a let­ter.

For years, Con­gress and the pub­lic alike have res­isted trans­fer­ring de­tain­ees to U.S. soil. But Guantanamo’s pop­u­la­tion may soon be­gin to dwindle, thanks to the latest Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, which gives the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion great­er flex­ib­il­ity in ac­cel­er­at­ing the pro­cess that sends de­tain­ees to their home coun­tries. Guantanamo costs the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment an av­er­age of $2.7 mil­lion per pris­on­er each year, and few­er de­tain­ees means more money in a de­fense budget shrunk by se­quest­ra­tion.

This year, the clos­ure of Guantanamo Bay is stuck at the end of a long line of dozens of oth­er press­ing policy is­sues, which means ef­forts to fast-track the pro­cess will likely get side­lined again.

This art­icle was up­dated at 12:58 p.m. 

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