As Guantanamo enters its third decade, what does the future look like for detainees?

Tuesday marked 20 years since the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba opened. Since Jan. 11, 2002, it’s been one of the most enduring symbols of the United States' war on terror. But it's also a symbol of government waste and mismanagement, and a legacy of torture. Amna Nawaz looks back at the facility's two decades, and what's to come, with Carol Rosenberg of The New York Time.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As of today, the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been open for 20 years.

    It is an enduring symbol of the American war on terror. But it's also a symbol for many Americans and worldwide of a grueling, controversial war and a legacy of torture.

    Amna Nawaz looks now at Guantanamo's history and what's to come as it enters its third decade.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    On January 11, 2002, the first 20 detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay's detention facility. That was four months to the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

    And, since then, it's held about 780 detainees, and the majority have never been charged; 741 have since been transferred out. And, today, 39 men remain. And so too do questions about their future and the future of Guantanamo Bay itself, as President Biden renews a pledge to close it.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined by New York Times reporter Carol Rosenberg. She is the only reporter covering Guantanamo Bay full-time.

    Carol, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    Let me ask you about those 39 men who are still there. About a dozen or so have been charged, right, the majority of them awaiting trial, including five men, we should say, for those 9/11 attacks.

    But most of the men there, most of them have never been charged. So how is it that the U.S. is still holding them?

  • Carol Rosenberg, The New York Times:

    So, you're correct that there's six people there awaiting death penalty trials, and the majority have not been charged. A few more have been charged through the years.

    It is essentially what is an offshore POW camp in this irregular war on terror. So they call them law of war prisoners, rather than POWs. But the concept was not that they were bringing in war criminals. The concept was, they were removing people from the battlefield.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And is it also true we have heard some of these men who haven't been charged will likely never be charged because of the treatment that they have endured while they have been in U.S. custody?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    Part of the problem in some cases may be that the evidence is so badly tainted that they can't bring charges against them. There's no clean evidence.

    But, again, these detainees are being held there not as alleged war criminals, but as, as they call them, law of war detainees. The intention was never to charge a majority of them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we should say a number — as we pointed out, most of them have been transferred out.

    And critics say, if you want to close the camp, you have got to transfer the remaining men out, especially if they have never been charged. So, we know the process is, they make their case before a review board that has members from six different agencies, including Defense and Justice and so on.

    I actually had a chance to sit in on one of those review hearings earlier today for one man who remains in custody. I went to a secure room in the Pentagon. You have a live video link to Guantanamo Bay.

    You just reported this week on one detainee, a Somali man who I believe is the first high-value detainee who's been approved for transfer out of Guantanamo. Explain to me the significance of that. How big a deal is that?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    So, first of all, he's not one of 18 men. We had more released decisions, transfer decisions come out today.

    But the significance of this man, the Somali man, is that they have never before cleared someone who came straight to Guantanamo from a CIA black site for transfer to another country. And there's a number of those former CIA prisoners who are not charged with crimes. And this suggests that, if the CIA at some point had felt that they couldn't ever be released, that some of them might be released.

    The most — the best known one who's not charged there, I think, is a man named Abu Zubaydah, who's had a hearing, never been charged with a crime. And so there's some expectations that we're going to hear about whether they have decided he can be relocated to another country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Carol, let me walk you through the timeline, for anyone who's been catching up on how this has been open for 20 years.

    When you look back, January of 2009 is when President Obama, in one of his first executive orders, ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year. That wasn't able to happen during his presidency. Congress put up a number of hurdles that kept him from being able to move people out.

    January 2017, President Trump takes office, reverses that closure order. And then, of course, February 2021, President Biden comes into office a month before and launches a review. He has committed to closing it.

    But, Carol, you follow this more closely than anyone? Do you see those steps being taken? Could this facility be closed under President Biden?

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    So, three presidents out of four have said they wanted to close it.

    For President Bush, it was aspirational. He said, we shouldn't need to do this. For President Obama, it was intentional, meaning the former constitutional law professor was offended by the notion of indefinite detention without charge.

    President Biden doesn't talk about it that much. We don't know where he lands on the aspirational vs. intentional spectrum. He hasn't assigned anyone full-time to this task. The argument is that, there's so few of them, it can be handled by a number of people in government.

    But the counterargument is, if you want something done, make someone responsible for it, and they can move government. So, I think the question is, how badly does he want it?

    And I think I have told you this before, Amna. Closing Guantanamo doesn't mean opening the gates and letting everybody go. It means moving Guantanamo, picking up a number of detainees and taking them to detention facilities in the United States for some sort of similar kind of detention.

    And, right now, Congress won't have it. The law says they can't move them here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Carol Rosenberg of The New York Times, who follows the proceedings and the ups and downs at Guantanamo Bay more closely than anyone else, a facility that remains open 20 years later to the day.

    Carol, thank you so much for your time. Always good to see you.

  • Carol Rosenberg:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more on Guantanamo's legacy, follow us on Instagram.

    There, we examine the detention camp's history by the numbers, including a look at how much it costs to hold each detainee.

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