As Political Battle Starts, Guantanamo Detainees Wait

The Obama Administration is gearing up to release its long-awaited plan for closing Guantanamo—a plan that likely involves moving some detainees to a federal or military prison within the United States. Political opponents have expressed outrage at the very idea, while the detainees—almost half of whom have been cleared for release by all relevant government agencies (some multiple times)—sit and wait.

Satirical news site The Onion this week published an article titled “Guantanamo Bay Begins Construction on Senior Care Wing.” Sadly, with Congress barring transfers to the United States, and President Obama’s administration frustrating attempts to free detainees like Tariq Ba Odah (a 75-pound, physically deteriorating detainee who is cleared for transfer), the satire seems all too real.

Fifty-two detainees, including Ba Odah, have been cleared for transfer by a rigorous inter-agency process that includes the State, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. All of these detainees have been imprisoned without charge or trial for more than 12 years. The State Department has reportedly found countries willing to take many, but these efforts have been blocked by Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Moreover, when detainees like Ba Odah have challenged their detention in U.S. court, the administration fights them.

Of the rest of the 116 total detainees, most are eligible for the Periodic Review Board (PRB) process, which evaluates whether detainees slated for indefinite detention are still a threat to the United States. If the PRB determines that a detainee is no longer a threat (or a threat that can be mitigated), he is cleared for transfer. The review process was meant to be over by 2012, but only started in 2013, and has held only 20 hearings.

According to an article by Spencer Ackerman, nearly all the current detainees, who have routinely been called “the worst of the worst,” arrived at Guantanamo after being captured by Afghan or Pakistani intelligence agencies, military, police, and warlords. Often, they were turned over to U.S. troops for bounties ranging from $3,000 to $25,000. These revelations—along with the fact that the original detainee threat determinations were based on outdated and unreliable intelligence sometimes gained through torture—suggest the detainees aren’t as dangerous as claimed, and make prompt PRB hearings all the more important.

The costs of delay are real, and not just monetarily, but morally and politically. Housing prisoners at Guantanamo costs vastly more than it would at federal or military prisons in the United States. And true to The Onion article, as the detainee population ages, medical costs will increase exponentially, requiring the construction of new facilities and the transportation of medical staff and equipment to the remote island base. U.S. allies, meanwhile, are less likely to provide counterterrorism cooperation with the prison open, and its existence lessens American diplomatic power around the world. For these reasons, military and national security leaders believe closing the prison will help U.S. national security.

The Obama Administration needs to restart the transfer of cleared detainees, and jumpstart the PRB hearings. Formulating a plan is important, but in the meantime, action is desperately needed.

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Published on August 26, 2015

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