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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