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Guantanamo Bay's Slow Closing Act

Author: Greg Bruno
December 16, 2009


If progress in closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility was measured in prisoner numbers alone, December 15 could mark a watershed day for President Barack Obama. The president, who has called the offshore facility a stain on the country's international reputation, directed the government to purchase a small-town prison in his home state of Illinois to house up to roughly half of the 210 inmates at Guantanamo. The move has triggered a range of sentiment, including strong criticism (Politico) from congressional Republicans who say that transferring accused terrorists poses an unnecessary security risk. Even human rights groups appear unhappy. One of them, Amnesty International USA, said in a statement: "The only thing that President Obama is doing with this announcement is changing the ZIP code of Guantanamo."

Obama's plan for the Thomson Correctional Center, outlined in a letter to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, would turn the prison into a dual-use facility, housing federal inmates under the auspices of the Department of Justice, and select Guantanamo detainees monitored by the Department of Defense. Administration officials say as many one hundred prisoners could be bound for Illinois (NYT), the majority ineligible for transfer, trial, or release. It's this so-called "fifth category" of detainee that gives civil libertarians pause (Washington Independent).

A maze of legal issues awaits congressional scrutiny. For one, inmates in Cuba are only legally allowed to challenge their detention, but once inside the United States their rights could change (CSMonitor), giving lawyers a potentially vast new arsenal of tools to fight prosecution. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder notes that Congress would need to authorize funding to transfer inmates for indefinite detention to U.S. soil. Critics also wonder whether civilian prisons are up to the task of housing hardened terrorists; one former Bush administration official says civilian courts and detention facilities don't provide the needed level of containment (Reuters) for convicted terrorists. Of the 210 detainees that remain in Guantanamo, about 90 have been cleared for transfer back to their home countries. Five inmates will be tried in civilian courts (WashPost) in New York City. The remaining inmates are either candidates for indefinite detention, trial in military commissions, or trial in civilian courts.

Rewriting the Bush administration's playbook on detainee treatment has been a priority for the Obama White House, and the president has already banned torture, shuttered CIA-run "black" prisons, and pledged more transparency on issues of prisoner treatment. But on Guantanamo his record is mixed. Some legal experts are buoyed by the Illinois proposal, while others worry the president is moving too fast to move inmates out by January 2010--a deadline even he says is likely be missed (WashPost). Gregory D. Lee, a criminal justice consultant, says in the "haste to reduce the number of detainees," prisoners could slip through the cracks and return to the battlefield (Jurist), as some have already done (Long War Journal). All of this points in one direction, argues Dan Schnur, communications director for Senator John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign: Obama's campaign team made a promise to the American people, and "now they're stuck" (NYT).

Additional Analysis

Five legal experts examine President Obama's plan to relocate Guantanamo to American soil in the New York Times' Room for Debate blog.

John B. Bellinger III, CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law, says Obama's range of approaches to shuttering Guantanamo has left the door open to continued criticism.


President Obama's May 2009 speech outlining his plans for closing Guantanamo.

February 2009 Defense Department report on detainee conditions at Guantanamo.

Backgrounder: Closing Guantanamo

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