Andy Worthington | June 17, 2021
An article last week by NBC News — “Biden quietly moves to start closing Guantánamo ahead of 20th anniversary of 9/11” — was widely shared by opponents of the continued existence of the shameful prison at Guantánamo Bay, but frustratingly failed to live up to the promise of its headline.
40 men are still held at Guantánamo, and nine of these men have been approved for release by high-level US government review processes — three in 2010, two in 2016, one in 2020, and three just last month, in decisions taken by the Periodic Review Boards set up under President Obama that show a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that continues to hold, indefinitely, men who have been held for up to 19 years, and have never been charged with a crime.
The PRBs reviewed the cases of 64 men under Obama, and approved 38 of them for release, but since then the process of reviewing the other 26 men has largely ossified into rigid threat assessments based on the initial decisions taken under Obama. That has finally changed with the recent decisions to approve three men for release, and it is to be hoped that further recommendations for release will be forthcoming in the PRBs, although none of this will mean anything if these men are not actually freed.
The key to their release requires someone within the Biden administration to take responsibility for prisoner resettlement plans, and the obvious route forward would be to revive the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which was set up under Obama but closed under Donald Trump. Last week, just before the NBC News article was published, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that the Biden administration was “actively looking” into “recreating the position of a State Department envoy for the closure of the prison,” as Reuters explained. As Blinken stated, “I want to make sure that the department has what it needs both in terms of resources and personnel, and including someone who can focus on this full-time to do that, so we’re actively looking into doing that.”
According to the sources cited by NBC News, however, directly contradicting Secretary Blinken, the administration has “changed course” after “rebuffed attempts to recruit a special envoy.”
Nevertheless, these same sources suggest that the administration “hopes to transfer a handful of the remaining” prisoners — the actual phrase used, unhelpfully, by NBC was “terrorism suspects” — “to foreign countries,” and then to “persuade Congress to permit the transfer of the rest — including 9/11 suspects — to detention on the US mainland.”
Elsewhere in the article, NBC News repeated claims, reportedly made by “people familiar with the discussions,” that the White House “will first reduce the number of detainees,” but “will put off, at least for now, opening a State Department office and naming an envoy to focus on closing the facility,” even though the release of prisoners is dependant on having someone within the administration to negotiate and oversee their release — the very definition of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, whose main responsibility, despite the job title, was the resettlement of prisoners approved for release, especially those who cannot safely be returned to their home countries, like the Yemenis, whose repatriation has been repeatedly ruled out by the entire US establishment, for over a decade, because of instability in Yemen.
This contradiction at the heart of the NBC article — and the way it also stands in opposition to Antony Blinken’s recent statement in the House — rather overshadows everything else the sources had to say, although I’ll run through the other aspects of the story just to record what some of the possibilities are.
Of the 40 men still held, 19 have never been charged, and are also part of the PRB process, which has persistently refused to recommend their release, although “a Defense Department official” suggested that they “may be candidates for transfer to foreign countries.” It is to be hoped that this is the case, because, after far too many years in which the entire US establishment has accepted that some of the men still held can continue to be imprisoned indefinitely because of purely administrative assessments of the threat that they allegedly pose, lawmakers and other decision-makers have finally woken up to the fact that, as the prison approaches the 20th anniversary of its opening, in January 2022, it is only acceptable that those still held are either charged or released, as 24 Senators explained in a recent letter to Biden.
The other 12 prisoners — those that have been charged — present another problem for the administration. While two have been “convicted by military commissions,” the ten others — including the five men charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks — are caught up in what appear to be endless pre-trial hearings in the military commission process, established after 9/11, which is fundamentally broken and not fit for purpose.
NBC’s sources suggested that the Biden administration “is likely to try to work out plea deals for the men in the military commissions process, under which they would continue to be detained but could be spared the death penalty,” and “is leaning against including the option of transferring detainees to US military installations” — which Obama tried, but failed to get through Congress. According to the sources, the Biden administration “may, instead, propose that any detainees who are not eligible for transfer to foreign countries be moved to so-called Supermax security prisons on the US mainland, notably the one in Florence, Colorado.”
Even if the sources are correct, however, Biden “must still persuade Congress to permit the transfer of detainees to the mainland,” and NBC suggested that the current administration, like the Obama administration, “plans to use the cost of maintaining Guantánamo, including special care required as detainees age, to try to persuade Congress to reverse the ban on domestic transfers.”
Overall, then, NBC’s article doesn’t really say much that can be counted on — which in part, of course, makes sense because prominently raising Guantánamo as an issue immediately provides a target for Republicans. As “a former senior administration official involved in the discussions” said of Biden officials, “They don’t want it to become a dominant issue that blows up. They don’t want it to become a lightning rod.”
As a result, there is not really any substance to the article’s conclusion that, “At a minimum, people familiar with administration discussions said, the Biden White House hopes to show some progress on closing Guantánamo by the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” especially as, elsewhere, the end of Biden’s four-year term as president is put forward as the date for when he “hopes to close the facility”; in other words, by January 2025.
In the short term, however, despite all the vagueness, there is clearly resonance in the observation that Biden ordering “the withdrawal of all US combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11” has left officials “cognizant of the optics of ending the war while one of its most infamous relics remains.”
For those of us who have demanding the closure of Guantánamo for more years than we care to remember, then, what this article suggests more than anything else is that we can’t just sit back and expect that the administration will move with any urgency to either release prisoners, or to work towards the prison’s closure, and that we must continue to demand its closure in every way we can.
Note: To get involved in the Close Guantánamo campaign’s ongoing photo campaign for the closure of Guantánamo, please take a photo with the latest poster, marking 7,100 days of the prison’s existence on June 19, and send it to the campaign’s email address.