Why Obama failed to close Guantanamo

In his 2008 run for the White House, President Barack Obama promised to shut down the prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and on his second full day as president he issued an executive order to close it within a year. Eight years later, that has not happened, though the number of people imprisoned there has dropped from 242 to 55. Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald joins Alison Stewart.

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    In his 2008 run for the White House, Barack Obama promised to shut down the prison for suspected foreign terrorists opened by President George W. Bush at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

    On his second full day in the White House, President Obama issued an executive order to close Guantanamo within a year.

    Eight years later, that has not happened. Mr. Obama's ambition was largely thwarted by congressional restrictions, but also by the difficulty in reducing the 242 prisoners he inherited to zero. Today, 55 remain, including five accused of organizing the September 11th attacks on America.

    No reporter has spent more time on the base than the "Miami Herald's" Carol Rosenberg, covering its detainees issues and military court proceedings. She was there this week and returns again next week, and joins me today from Boston.

    Carol, thanks so much for being with us.


    Thank you for the invitation.


    You have been following the story and been at Guantanamo since the very beginning. When Obama took office, there was some bipartisan support for closing Guantanamo Bay. When did that change and, ultimately, why did he fail to close it?


    I think it changed right around the time there was discussion of talking some men from China, Muslims, Uyghur descent, to Virginia. It became understood fairly soon into the administration that closing Guantanamo meant moving some of the detainees there to the United States, and that really turned the tide. As much as his opponent, John McCain, wanted it closed as well, there was an understanding, I think, that the original idea was not to bring detainees to the United States.


    Over the past 15 years, there have been at least 780 men detained at Guantanamo Bay. Nine died while in custody. Most were transferred out overseas, only a handful were convicted of crimes and now, 55 remain.

    Who is still there?


    So, the 55 break down to 10 men who are actually accused and charged with war crimes, and men who are in pretrial or have had trials through the military commissions, the war court. Six of those 10 men are on trial for their lives. They're accused of the September 11th and USS Cole attacks and the prosecutor seeks to execute them if they're convicted.

    The rest split between 19 men who are cleared for release, meaning the Obama administration boards have decided that if they can find places to rehabilitate them, reintegrate them, resettle them, they will send them there. And, you know, the weak — this is the week when we'll find out how many of those 19 can go because when Obama leaves, Donald Trump has made it clear that he's opposed to transfers.

    And then the remaining 26 men are what we at the "Miami Herald" call the "forever prisoners," indefinite detainees in the war on terror, men who aren't accused of war crimes. More like what we would think of as POWs, but irregular POWs, prisoners of war, because they are thought to have fought for al Qaeda, which isn't a nation but a movement.


    Carol, as we look back at the history of Guantanamo base, the military justice — for lack of a better word — has gone at a glacial pace. I mean, there have been terrorists convicted in our courts here. Why it does military justice take so long? Why has this taken so long?


    Military commission justice takes so long essentially because the men who are on trial for their lives were not taken straight to the courts. They were not taken straight to either a military court or a U.S., you know, civilian federal court and accused of terrorism crimes. They were carried off to the black sites of the CIA for three and four years. They were disappeared into the dark sites, and then they emerged in Guantanamo in 2006, by order of President Bush, who wanted them charged with crimes.

    And those men have lawyers who are challenging every aspect of that disappearance. It just doesn't happen in, you know, traditional American justice that someone is essentially arrested and disappeared with no access to attorney, and as we now know, incredibly aggressive, abusive mistreatment that their lawyers and they call torture.


    You were there last week. What is the sense of what's going to happen at Guantanamo with the incoming Trump administration? What are people saying on the ground?


    Well, for the most part, they're saying that they will — certainly the military would say that they're follow whatever the next commander in chief tells them to do. But I do think there is a fair amount of, you know, free-floating anxiety about what will come.

    Donald Trump said that, you know, he — during his campaign, that he intended to load the prison up with some bad dudes. He's not closing that prison. He wants to add more prisoners to it.

    So, there's a real question about where they're coming from, who they are, what will be the authority to detain them? And, you know, bringing in new prisoners from the global battlefield, from, let's say, perhaps, Iraq, or Syria, they'll be completely different people than the men who are there now.

    Remember, these men have been detained for at least a decade, and some of them for, you know, 15-plus years. And when they were captured, and when they got to Guantanamo for the most part, there was no ISIS. There was no al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.

    So, the idea that you're going to bring in, you know, perhaps the bad stepchildren of the original al Qaeda and put them in the detention center raises a whole bunch of questions. If Donald Trump makes good on his plan to bring more prisoners in, where will they go? And, you know, in many ways, it's like it was when it first opened — lots of questions, and very few answers.


    Carol Rosenberg from the "Miami Herald" — thanks so much.


    Thank you.

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