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Why hasn’t the Guantánamo Bay prison closed?

January 24, 2016 at 6:18 PM EDT
Since the beginning of his presidency, President Barack Obama has vowed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which he says is expensive, unnecessary and serves as a recruitment tool for America's enemies. Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the legal and logistical obstacles of President Obama's goal.
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MEGAN THOMPSON, PBS ANCHOR: During his first week in office, President Obama signed an executive order to close the prison at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year. That order was issued seven years ago this past Friday.

In his State of the Union address earlier this month, the president said he will keep working to close the prison, because, in his words, it’s expensive, unnecessary, and serves as a recruitment tool for America’s enemies.

President George W. Bush opened Guantanamo in 2002 to hold foreign fighters captured overseas, mainly in Afghanistan, in the war on terror that began immediately after 9/11.

For the past 14 years, Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg has covered Guantanamo full time, spending more than 1,000 days on site.

She sat down yesterday with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the legal and logistical obstacles to President Obama’s goal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were at one point 780 men there. Now we have less than 100, I think 91 or so as we talk, and that might change. But why are people still there?

CAROL ROSENBERG, The Miami Herald: People are still at Guantanamo because, despite President Obama’s desire to close it, Congress won’t let him.

Congress has decided that Guantanamo should continue to exist. Members of Congress like Guantanamo. And they have systemically thwarted his efforts to close that detention center in Cuba.

Closing Guantanamo at this stage, in the Obama administration view, is really moving Guantanamo to U.S. soil. The idea is not to open the cages and let everybody go or give them federal trials and put them in federal detention.

The idea is to pick up the last detainees and move them to military detention in the United States, what we call Guantanamo North, closing the detention center in Cuba and reconstituting it on U.S. soil. Congress so far has systemically blocked that vision.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why?

CAROL ROSENBERG: I think that part of it is that there is fear that, for some reason, these alleged terrorists are scarier than all the alleged terrorists — or, actually, the convicted terrorists in U.S. prisons.

I think part of is that members of Congress really like the message of Guantanamo. And the message of Guantanamo to the world is, mess with us and you end up in a cage at Guantanamo Bay.

In addition, there are — there is ambition by some people in Congress to grow Guantanamo. They like the idea that this could be an interrogation center. And, mostly, nobody wants Guantanamo in their backyard.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What have the outcomes been? You made an interesting distinction. You said the people who have been federally convicted in the United States of acts of terror vs. what has happened to these people who have been there possibly as long as 14 years.

CAROL ROSENBERG: So, with the most rarest of exception, these are not convicts. They’re not criminals. They’re war prisoners.

They would be, in a more traditional war what we would consider to be a POW, someone who is considered the enemy, taken off of the battlefield and held until the end of that war. The Bush administration never conferred on al-Qaida POW status. They created this war prisoner status.

With a few exceptions, of the 91 men down there today, 10 are in criminal proceedings. The idea is just to hold them, and to systemically decide when they can go. You know, people don’t necessarily understand that they’re not all terrorists in the classic understanding of it. They’re foot soldiers.

They were people who were picked up by the Northern Alliance in and around Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan and ultimately handed over to the U.S. The U.S. troops didn’t march into Afghanistan and take prisoners. People gave the Americans these prisoners.

And in some instances at Gitmo, these people weren’t in Afghanistan at all. There was somebody who was picked up in Thailand. There were people who — many people who were picked in Pakistan. This is not a battlefield roundup of prisoners of war.

But they are war prisoners. They are not accused, with some exceptions, of being criminals. And that is very different from terrorists who are convicted and sitting in federal detention here.

And so that is why the idea is to bring them to this country for military detention, not federal lockup.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Several of them have also been cleared for release, but they’re still there. And we have heard — in the past few months, we have seen one country takes a couple here and a few there, and, at some point, there were 15 that went in one direction.

But these are people that have been cleared maybe five or six years ago to be released.

CAROL ROSENBERG: That’s right.

Twenty-six countries have taken in people who couldn’t go home. And that’s — what you have been hearing about lately is, recently, two men were sent to the Balkans. The vast majority of those we wouldn’t send back were from Yemen.

The Bush administration — the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before them, made a policy decision that Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo wouldn’t go home.

They feared that they would be entering this destabilized country with a powerful al-Qaida franchise, and that there would be what they would — what they call re-engagement, that they wouldn’t go back to normal lives and settle down, as is the hope, that they wouldn’t go and have families and get on with their lives, that, in Yemen, the odds were they would be drawn back to al-Qaida and they would be attacking American targets.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tell me about Mohammed Bwazir.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Mohammed Bwazir knew where he was going. We don’t know where he was going. Mohammed Bwazir was offered sanctuary in a third country that his lawyer thought was a great country for resettlement, that was a great chance for him.

But he said, Mohammed Bwazir is afraid. He has been there so long, he fears the unknown. And he had been insisting that he only wanted to go to a country where his mom was, his brothers were or his aunts and uncles were.

And that’s the UAE, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. And the country that agreed to take him in was none of those. And he couldn’t bring himself to get on the plane and start his new life somewhere else.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, when…

CAROL ROSENBERG: It happened before, but this is such a strange thing, because we have been hearing from the lawyer for these men that the Yemenis in particular will go anywhere. They are so desperate to get off Guantanamo, they will go anywhere.

This man wouldn’t get on the plane.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what is their life like after they go somewhere? Can’t they just decide to leave those countries and try to make their way back to wherever their home is?

CAROL ROSENBERG: The deal that the U.S. makes is a diplomatic arrangement. And they are not exactly public, but we know that they are not entitled to travel papers, at least for a year, in some instances for two years.

They’re supposed to go to a rehabilitation center, something that’s going to get them back into society, a new society. In some instances, you know, they give them language.

There are some in Uruguay. There are some who just arrived in Oman. There are some Chinese — citizens of China Muslim Uighurs who were sent to Palau. They are all over the world. And different countries offer different packages.

But, no, it’s — the design of this program is for them not to be able to jump on the first plane and go to Yemen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Part of the reason you go down so regularly is to cover the trials. One of them is the 9/11 trial that is still going.

CAROL ROSENBERG: There are hearings. There are pretrial hearings. They are still trying to establish how there will be a trial of five men who were captured in 2002 and 2003 and taken off to the black sites of the CIA, where they were not given lawyers, where they were not given access to the Red Cross, where they were subjected to what is now considered to be torture, and then dropped at Guantanamo in 2006 for trial.

This war court that was created for those circumstances after 9/11 is still trying to work on how it will hold that trial. They’re still trying to figure out what constitutes legitimate evidence. It’s a death penalty trial. And so they have learned counsel, civilian defense attorneys paid for by the Pentagon to provide them with the most robust death penalty defenses.

And those lawyers are doing everything they can to attack the integrity of this court that was created after 9/11 by George Bush, and then reformed by Barack Obama.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Carol Rosenberg from The Miami Herald McClatchy, thanks so much for joining us.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Thank you.

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