Why the U.S. still hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay prison

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Last week, President Biden signed an $858 billion spending bill to fund the United States military for the next year. Although he decided to endorse the plan that Congress had approved, he had some strong criticisms for a few of the provisions included in the nearly 1,000-page legislation.

At the top of his list was the inclusion of long-standing rules banning the executive branch from using any funds to transfer prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay, the military prison on the Cuban coast that has been used to house suspected terrorists for more than 20 years. Biden has long advocated that the facility be closed and argued that these limits make it harder to resolve the cases of the remaining detainees.

The prison at Guantanamo was opened by the George W. Bush administration in early 2002, a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It has been the source of intense controversy ever since. Detainees there are considered by the U.S. government to be held outside the normal justice system, meaning that they are not afforded rights that typical prisoners receive. Most of those being held at the prison were never formally charged with any crime. Some former prisoners have described enduring what the United Nations referred to as “unrelenting human rights violations,” including torture.

In 2006, Bush said he “very much would like to end Guantanamo,” but ultimately decided against trying to do so. His successor, Barack Obama, issued an executive order calling for the prison to be closed as one of the first acts of his presidency, but the plan was stymied by political blowback and legal hurdles. Biden quietly revived that effort after replacing Donald Trump, who had vowed to keep Guantanamo open and “load it up with some bad dudes.”

It’s estimated that 780 individuals have been held at Guantanamo over the course of the past two decades. Today, just 35 remain. The majority have never been charged with any crime and only two current detainees have been convicted. The U.S. spends an estimated $13 million a year per prisoner, according to a tally from the New York Times.

Why there’s debate

Guantanamo has largely faded from the public debate. A recent report that the military plans to spend $435 million building a new hospital there barely cracked the news cycle. Closing the facility, however, presents a host of unique challenges that many believe will prevent Biden from doing so.

The biggest problem, most argue, is deciding where to hold the facility’s remaining prisoners. Twenty of the 35 detainees have been recommended for transfer to another country, but finding the right conditions for their ongoing captivity will be a thorny process. Even if all the individuals were relocated, there would still be the difficulty of resolving the cases of the dozen or so who are viewed as a genuine terrorist threat — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom the U.S. has called “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.” Mohammed and four co-defendants were charged for their alleged roles in the attacks more than a decade ago, but a trial start date still hasn’t been set.

Beyond those logistical hurdles, there’s also the question of whether Biden is willing to provoke the partisan backlash that is likely to erupt should he try to close the prison for good. Many observers argue that maintaining the status quo carries no real political cost, but actually moving to shut Guantanamo down would bring a wave of accusations from Republicans that Biden was “freeing terrorists,” and that outcry could do real harm to his potential reelection chances. Some on the left say closing Guantanamo will require an honest accounting of the human rights violations committed there, a step they believe no American president is prepared to take.

But other experts argue that the Americans’ views on terrorism have changed so much over the past two decades that GOP criticisms would mostly fall flat if Biden did move to shut the prison down. Still others say that as complicated as the cases of the remaining prisoners may be, they are not unsolvable if the White House is determined to get the job done.


The politics around Guantanamo still lean heavily in favor of the status quo

“I think that the Biden team feels there's no political advantage in making a big show out of this effort. This is a problem they inherited that they'd like to take off the books, but I don't think they're willing to expend political capital on it.” — Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal

Biden could easily close Guantanamo if he was committed to doing so

“Among the challenges facing our country today, closing Guantanamo is far from the most complex. While it may be politically complicated — critics of the administration will undoubtedly try to exploit the effort to score political points — it is not rocket science. … At this point, closing the prison is a risk management exercise, and the risk is clearly manageable.” — Elisa Massimino, CNN

Closing Guantanamo simply isn’t a priority

“The desire to shut down Guantanamo has been back on the table ever since Joe Biden took over the White House. Like his old boss, Biden at the outset of his presidency promised to permanently shutter the Guantanamo detention facility. More than a year and a half later, there has been little movement toward the compound’s closure. Inexplicably, there’s still no end in sight for Guantanamo.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

Closing the prison would require confronting the abuses the U.S. committed there

“For the collective psyche of the United States, closing Guantanamo is ultimately about finally facing the ways Guantanamo gives the lie to the values and principles at the heart of American identity. For a start, Americans must face that they endorsed forcing hundreds of Muslim men and boys into a dehumanising prison, where torture was de rigueur, to provide themselves with a fleeting sense of safety — and then chose to look away as the abuses and innocence of many prisoners were exposed.” — Maha Hilal, Middle East Eye

Republicans are still primed to obstruct any real effort to close the prison

“The latest developments suggest officials have made some progress, but given Republican intransigence, lowering the number from 35 to zero will remain a difficult challenge for the administration.” — Steve Benen, MSNBC

The U.S. is unwilling to surrender the extralegal powers that Guantanamo provides

“The main reason the United States chose to create a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay was because it could simultaneously hold the detainees outside the United States and not be constrained by a host country. So long as this remains true, there is a risk of the United States using the base to hold others.” — Jana Lipman, Washington Post

The U.S. has wrongly committed to providing due process to terrorists who don’t deserve it

“The problem is that we’ve predetermined, entirely rationally, that justice requires the execution of these monsters, but we’ve accepted … that there can be no execution without a trial. But it is highly unlikely that these monsters can be tried in a process that we would recognize as a trial. Even if they could, it might take forever, and the outcome would be uncertain.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

Americans aren’t good at dealing with complicated problems

“We may want to talk about foreign policy in black and white, but we have to live in the gray. We should still try to do the right thing. … There may be a price to closing the prison, but what is it really costing us each day we keep it open?” — LZ Granderson, Los Angeles Times

Closing the prison wouldn’t be enough to make up for all of the horrors committed there

“The horrors of Guantánamo will not disappear by simply shutting down the facility. There must be a proper reckoning with the legacy of torture at Guantánamo Bay. … Without this reckoning, the Biden administration’s statements in support of human rights will continue to ring hollow.” — Noha Aboueldahab, Foreign Policy

Guantanamo is still open because closing it would be a mistake

“The United States remains in a state of armed conflict, and we are entitled to detain opposing enemy forces for the duration of hostilities. Those forces include the terrorists currently detained at Guantanamo.” — Charles “Cully” Stimson, Heritage Foundation

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes; photos: John Moore/Getty Images