Why’s It Taking So Long to Close Guantanamo?

In this Oct. 18, 2012 file photo reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, towers overlooking a U.S. detention facility are silhouetted against a morning sunrise at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Toronto Star, Michelle Shephard, File)

In this Oct. 18, 2012 file photo reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, towers overlooking a U.S. detention facility are silhouetted against a morning sunrise at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba. (AP Photo/Toronto Star, Michelle Shephard, File)

July 16, 2015

It’s been a great summer for President Barack Obama.

Late last month, his chief domestic policy accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, was upheld for a second time by the Supreme Court.

One day later, the same court then enshrined the right to marry for same-sex couples, a move his administration supported.

Then, this week, he secured a historic deal to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon, which if successful, would be a major foreign-policy victory.

But six and a half years after Obama took office, one of the first items he vowed to check off as president remains undone: closing the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Today that facility has become a costly, administrative headache for the U.S. government. It costs more than $440 million per year to operate — or about $3.8 million for each of the 116 detainees. U.S. officials say it’s become a recruiting tool for terrorists, who use it to further justify attacks on U.S. targets. And it’s a legal quandary. Some of the detainees have been determined to pose no threat to the U.S., and have been cleared for release for years. Others the administration considers too dangerous to free, but knows it also couldn’t convict them in a proper trial.

Failure to close Guantanamo would be a blow to Obama’s legacy. But it would also leave the facility, and its remaining detainees, with an uncertain fate under the next administration. None of the current leading presidential candidates have committed to closing Guantanamo, although Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton reportedly pushed to close it as Secretary of State. Republican candidate Jeb Bush said recently that he saw no reason to close it. Donald Trump, who placed first in at least one recent Republican primary poll, said last year that releasing prisoners from Guantanamo was akin to the U.S. having a “death wish.”

Still, with only a year and a half left in his term, progress in closing Guantanamo remains halting, at best.

In 2009, Obama signed an executive order directing a task force to make a plan to transfer the remaining detainees and close the facility. In 2010, Congress effectively blocked transfers from the prison. Those rules were loosened in 2013 to allow transfers to other countries, but not the United States. The administration appointed a special envoy to spearhead the transfer process.

Envoy Clifford Sloan left in December after managing to transfer 39 detainees in 18 months.

“I was pleased at the progress that we were able to make,” he said in an interview with FRONTLINE, but added, “Any month that goes by without a significant number of transfers is a missed opportunity.”

After six months, a new envoy, Lee Wolosky, an attorney with a background in national security cases, started last week. The State Department wouldn’t make Wolosky available for an interview, but Ian Moss, the office’s spokesman, said he’s “hit the ground running.”


To leave Guantanamo, a detainee must be approved for release by a team from six government departments. The envoy must find a country that won’t subject them to human rights abuses, but that can also offer assurances that they can keep the former detainee under close watch. Once a deal is in place, the Secretary of Defense must sign off on the plan and notify Congress.

But often, those familiar with the process say, the release of a detainee slows down once it reaches the Department of Defense.

Under Chuck Hagel, the previous secretary who left office in February, the sign-off process was intentionally slow. “I take it seriously,” he said of the decision to approve transfers earlier this year. “I think it’s an important one. I won’t be rushed into any decisions. And I suspect I have not made everybody happy always on that point. But it’s too big a decision to be made quickly or politically.”

Hagel was replaced in February by Ashton Carter, who promised Congress during his confirmation hearing that he wouldn’t succumb to pressure from the White House to speed up transfers from Guantanamo.

“It should surprise no one that the Defense Department is not and has not been, for a very long time, fully onboard with closing Guantanamo,” said Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal organization that has pushed to close the facility and represents several people who are detained there.

In an e-mailed response to questions, the DOD said that it is committed to closing the facility. “Unfortunately, this process can be slowed unnecessarily by burdensome legislative provisions,” said Henrietta Levin, a department spokesperson, adding that it was up to Congress to streamline the process.

Levin added, “We are taking all practicable steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo and to close the detention facility in a responsible manner that protects our national security.”


One of the major obstacles to closing the prison is the fear that freed detainees will return to terrorism. As of January, six of 115 detainees transferred under the Obama administration have been confirmed to return to terrorism — about 5 percent, according to the most recent report from the Director of National Intelligence.

Under the George W. Bush administration, which transferred 532 detainees, the rate of recidivism was higher, at nearly 21 percent. All told, that’s an 18 percent recidivism rate across both administrations.

Another 69 detainees are “suspected” of having engaged in terrorism, which the government defines as “plausible but unverified or single-source reporting” that the former detainee is directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activity. Only one of those, however, was released under the Obama administration.

“There’s no such thing as zero risk,” Moss, the envoy spokesman, said. But, “under this administration, and with the approach we’ve taken, we have had a very, very small percentage of individuals who are confirmed of having re-engaged.”

The Defense Department set up a review board in 2011 to periodically reevaluate detainees for release. A panel with representatives from six departments — the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the office of the Director of National Intelligence — consider the detainees’ history, behavior during detention, and current statements, along with U.S. intelligence. To date, only 14 detainees are currently approved for transfer, although about half of the 116 detainees — 54 — are eligible for the review process.

Take the case of Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah, an Egyptian and former Al Qaeda explosives expert who has admitted to taking part in terrorism, according to a government summary of his case. Al Sawah joined up with Taliban forces in 2000, although the U.S. found no indications that he was a high-ranking operative.

In February, 13 years into his time in Guantanamo, the board recommended al Sawah for transfer, citing his “change of ideology and renunciation of violence,” and adding that he was “one of the most compliant detainees.” Al Sawah’s detention, it concluded, “is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

But for now, al Sawah, along with the others already approved for transfer, is still in detention.

Even if all of the eligible detainees are transferred, there are still at least 30 detainees whom the U.S. has deemed too dangerous to release, but is unwilling to put on trial. The Defense Department is working on a proposal to Congress to transfer those detainees to a secure U.S. facility, but it hasn’t yet been presented.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE



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