WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden will attempt to close the prison on the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay after a review process and resume a project begun under the Obama administration, the White House said Friday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration’s “intention” was to close the detention center, which President Barack Obama promised within a year of taking office in January 2009.
Psaki did not provide a schedule and told reporters that the formal review was “robust” and would require the participation of officials from the Department of Defense, Justice and other agencies who have not yet been appointed under the new administration.
“There are many actors from different agencies who need to be part of this policy discussion on progress,” she said.
Obama encountered fierce domestic political opposition when he attempted to close the detention center, a notorious symbol of America’s fight against terrorism. Biden may have more wiggle room now, with only 40 prisoners left and Guantanamo attracting much less public attention, though its announcement has generated some immediate criticism.
The US opened the detention center in January 2002 to detain people suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It has become a source of international criticism of the mistreatment of prisoners and the continued incarceration of people without charge.
The announcement of a closure plan was not unexpected. As a candidate, Biden had said that he supported the closure of the detention center. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said so in a written testimony for his Senate endorsement.
“Guantanamo has given us a chance to implement prisoner-of-war laws to keep our enemies off the battlefield, but I think it’s time for the Guantanamo detention center to close,” Austin said.
Of the 40 remaining prisoners in Guantánamo, five were previously cleared for release through an in-depth review process launched under Obama as part of efforts to close the detention center and transfer the remaining prisoners to facilities in the United States
At the height of 2003, the detention center at the naval base on the southeastern tip of Cuba held almost 680 prisoners. Amid international outrage, President George W. Bush called it “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a diversion for our allies” and said he supported the shutdown but left it to his successor.
Under Bush, the US began prosecuting some prisoners for war crimes in tribunals known as military commissions. 532 prisoners were also released.
Obama promised to close the detention center while keeping the larger naval base, but met strong political opposition over plans to persecute and detain men in the United States and concerns that returning others to their homes would pose a security risk.
This opposition persists, at least to some extent. “The Democrats’ obsession with bringing terrorists into American backyards is bizarre, misguided and dangerous,” said Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, following the White House announcement on Friday. “Just like with President Obama, the Republicans will fight it with all their might.”
Obama argued that maintaining the detention center was not just bad policy, it was a waste of money and would cost more than $ 445 million a year in 2016.
Under his administration, 197 were returned or relocated to other countries.
That left 41 under Trump, who at one point promised to “charge” it with some “bad guys”. He never approved a single release, a Saudi prisoner who had reached a plea deal on his war crimes case.
Of those who stay in Guantánamo, 10 men stand in front of a military commission. Among them are five men who are charged with the planning and logistical support of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The case has been bogged down in the preliminary proceedings for years.
Human rights groups that have long advocated the closure of Guantánamo welcomed Biden’s announcement.
“For nearly two decades the United States has been in denial of justice the hundreds of men the government has indefinitely detained in Guantánamo Bay without charge or trial,” said Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security with Human Rights program at Amnesty International USA . “Forty men remain there today. It’s been a long time to close. “