On Jan. 6, President Joe Biden publicly commemorated the one-year anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Capitol, saying: “This isn’t about being bogged down in the past. This is about making sure the past isn’t buried. That’s the only way forward. That’s what great nations do. They don’t bury the truth. They face up to it.”
Many of us commemorating the 20th anniversary of the opening of the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention facility today could not agree more.
Experts have extensively documented the problems at and proposed solutions to Guantanamo. In 2021 on Just Security alone, writers have documented multiple instances of torture, highlighted the grave due process problems, made the national security case for closing Guantanamo, and identified how the Biden administration could correct the United States’ position on Guantanamo cases. Civil society leaders – including at Amnesty International, where I work – have likewise called for closure of the prison and provided ample recommendations for how that could be done.
Yet the United States seems to have assumed a collective amnesia when it comes to Guantanamo.
The military prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was opened 20 years ago today for the purpose of detaining individuals suspected of links to the 9/11 attacks and keeping them beyond the reach of U.S. law. The Bush administration even made up a new name for them – “unlawful enemy combatants” – to deny them the protections of the laws of war. Extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo has now been going on for so long that there is an entire generation for whom it has always existed. Some young adults serving in the military today were born after detention at Guantanamo began. Yet the abuses and illegality at Guantanamo have largely been relegated to a background issue of U.S. policy, rarely included in politicians’ lofty pronouncements about the rule of law.
Nearly 800 Muslim men and boys have been detained at Guantanamo over the last 20 years. Almost none of them had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. Thirty-nine prisoners remain at Guantanamo today. Most have still not been charged with a crime.
The United States brutally interrogated and tortured detainees at Guantanamo. Abuses included sleep deprivation, extended solitary confinement, light and sound manipulation, exposure to extreme temperatures, sexual harassment, threats of rape, threats with dogs, physical beatings, “stress positions,” and religious abuse such as mocking the call to prayer and abuse of the Qur’an. Many detainees had previously also been tortured in secret CIA prisons with techniques including waterboarding. These actions blatantly violated both U.S. and international law, and have left indelible scars, including severe prolonged physical and mental health problems for many of the detainees. Still, U.S. officials who planned and oversaw these actions have never been held accountable.
This might all seem like old history, but for the 39 men still imprisoned at Guantanamo, 27 of whom have never even been charged with a crime, it is an ongoing, daily, flagrant abuse of their human rights. The U.S. government would surely condemn any other nation that engaged in indefinite detention without charge or trial for two decades.
Guantanamo was created by executive action, and it can be shut down by the president, too.
Biden has said he wants to close the prison. Back in 2009, as vice president, he told an audience at the Munich Security conference, “We will uphold the rights of those who we bring to justice. And we will close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.” But since taking office, Biden has barely acknowledged the prison’s ongoing existence and has never committed to any timeline for closing it.
Administration officials have suggested they need cooperation from Congress, but the President knows that’s not the case. National security experts and advocates have submitted detailed recommendations to the president and his advisors detailing the steps they can take to close it down, many of which Just Security writers previously analyzed here. None of them require action by Congress. All of those steps can be taken now.
Instead, the Biden administration is spending millions of dollars expanding Guantanamo’s facilities. Add that to the more than half a billion dollars already spent annually to keep the prison open, and Guantanamo is likely the most expensive prison on earth.
Speaking from the Capitol building on the 100th day of his presidency in April, Biden lauded the “extraordinary courage” summoned to defend it on Jan. 6 and asked: “Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us created equal in the image of God have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect and possibility?”
The continued indefinite detention of Muslims without charge or trial at Guantanamo flies in the face of any promise of “dignity, respect and possibility” the United States might hope to offer. President Biden should summon his own political courage to put an end to it.
Guantanamo has global implications: the United States’ persistent indefinite detention of uncharged men in an offshore prison acts as a standing invitation to other countries to follow in those footsteps. And Guantanamo provides an easy retort to world leaders criticized by the United States for their own human rights records. We also know it’s also been featured in propaganda by al-Qaeda and other non-state armed groups seeking to recruit new members.
More than a decade ago, former President George W. Bush acknowledged that “the detention facility had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies,” and should be closed. A broad range of national security leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, have for many years agreed.
While Biden, in withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, has been eager to put the endless “war on terror” behind him, the continued existence of the Guantanamo prison and indefinite detention without charge of 39 Muslim men stands as a glaring impediment: an enduring symbol of discriminatory law enforcement, Islamophobia, and flagrant disregard for international human rights.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol and disinformation about everything from vaccines to the integrity of our elections are no doubt important matters, but the U.S. government’s commitment to truth, rights, and rationality cannot be selective. For U.S. leaders to credibly argue that respect for the rule of law and equal rights are necessary on other issues, they must also respect the same principles when it comes to Guantanamo.
As Biden put it on January 6: “We are in a battle for the soul of America.” There is no sound, rights-respecting, and honest reason to keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open beyond this tragic 20th anniversary. Biden should demonstrate his commitment to the values he professes by closing it now.