Opinion: The Guantanamo prison camp has become America’s cage

Editor’s note: Editor’s note: Elisa Massimino is visiting professor and executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The opinions in this comment are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


According to Google Search, one of the most frequently asked questions about Guantanamo is, “When did Guantanamo prison close?”

Answer: it was not.

Given the extensive list of human rights groups, bipartisan members of Congress, and national security experts who have called for the prison’s closure, it’s no wonder many people think Guantanamo should have been closed long ago.

For example, former President George W. Bush – who authorized the detention of prisoners to begin with – called Guantanamo “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies” and said he wanted to close it before leaving office. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger condemned Guantanamo as “a stain on our national reputation.”

Former National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair called Guantanamo “a recruiting ground for terrorists and harmful to our national security.” Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told President Bush that Guantanamo was a “national security liability” and advised him to close it.

Major General Michael Lehnert, who was responsible for opening the prison in 2002, said Guantanamo cost us the moral high ground of the war. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen said Guantanamo has been “a recruiting symbol for our enemies”. General Colin Powell said he would close it “not tomorrow; This evening.” The late Sen. John McCain said it would be “an act of moral courage” to find a way to close the prison.

And last month, the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, a task force that includes two former heads of Guantanamo’s military commissions and one of its attorneys general, issued a sweeping report that does not recommend closing the prison. but he also condemned its continued operation as “an ongoing threat to the national security of the United States.”

The task force joins a chorus of five defense secretaries, eight secretaries of state, six national security advisers, five chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and dozens of retired generals and admirals who have concluded the military commission designed to prosecute Guantanamo and the detainees. The history of torture and cruelty that was American policy under the Bush administration is thoroughly tainted.

In fact, the loudest and most persistent calls to close the prison have come not from human rights and civil liberties groups, but from US defense, law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic officials – people who have a 360-degree view of the costs and benefits. Guantanamo They know our national security is best served closed.

The exterior of Camp Delta is seen at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

And yet Guantanamo remains open. Former President Barack Obama, who made the most serious public commitment to close the prison and developed the clearest exit strategy, was hampered by both congressional action and his administration losing nerve to the political winds. Today, more than 20 years after the United States took the first prisoners to Guantanamo, it is not just the prisoners who are trapped there. It is also our cage.

And the costs of being stuck there are enormous: the loss of US moral authority, especially acute now amid the global competition between democracy and authoritarianism; Free propaganda for America’s enemies; The closure and lack of accountability for the worst terrorist attacks in US history. All of this costs the American taxpayer about $540 million annually to maintain the prison. The impromptu detention and trial in what Donald Rumsfeld called the worst place to stockpile prisoners in the war on terror has been a moral, legal, strategic and financial hole for our country.

The good news is that President Joe Biden, who came into office promising to close Guantanamo once and for all, is quietly re-energizing to make it happen. In September, he appointed a new envoy to work exclusively on negotiating arrangements for the host country to exit Guantanamo. He has also stated that his administration will not obstruct plea negotiations in the cases of the five 9/11 conspirators. Given the sclerosing military commission process, plea agreements appear to be the only viable way to resolve these cases and ensure justice for the families of the 9/11 victims.

We often talk about who we are as a nation, but who we are cannot be separated from what we do. At a recent meeting on strategies to hold the Russians accountable for atrocities in Ukraine, Ukraine’s war crimes prosecutor said he had studied American mistakes – torture and indefinite detention, to name a couple – and wanted to learn from them and avoid them. This is the legacy of Guantanamo. As the president who ended America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, it is only fitting that Biden should erase that legacy and restore America’s reputation for justice and the rule of law. The question is not why or if, but how.

Among the challenges facing our country today, closing Guantanamo is far from the most complex. While it may be politically complicated – critics of the administration will no doubt try to capitalize on the effort to score political points – it is not rocket science. Of the almost 800 men who have passed through the prison, only 36 remain in custody. Two military commissions have tried them and another 10 are awaiting trial; three others are being held without charge; and the remaining 21 have been recommended for transfer.

At this point, closing the prison is a risk management exercise, and the risk is clearly managed. With the President’s leadership and persistence, we can finally escape Guantanamo.