Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: Elisa Massimino is visiting professor and executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The views in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
According to Google Search, one of the most frequently asked questions about Guantanamo is: “When did the Guantanamo prison close?”
The answer: It hasn’t.
Given the extensive list of human rights groups, bipartisan members of Congress, and national security experts who have called for the prison to be shut down, it’s no surprise that so many people think that Guantanamo was shuttered long ago.
For example, former President George W. Bush – who authorized the initial detention of prisoners there – called Guantanamo “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies,” and said he wanted to close it before he left office. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decried Guantanamo as “a blot on our national reputation.”
Former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair called Guantanamo “a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment and harmful to our national security.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told President Bush that Guantanamo was a “national security liability” and advised him to close it down.
Major General Michael Lehnert, who was tasked with standing up the prison in 2002, said Guantanamo cost us the moral high ground in the war. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen said that Guantanamo has been “a recruiting symbol for our enemies.” General Colin Powell said he would close it “not tomorrow; this afternoon.” The late Sen. John McCain said it would be “an act of moral courage” to find a way to shutter the prison.
And just last month, under the auspices of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, a working group that includes two former heads of the Guantanamo military commissions and one of its chief prosecutors, issued a comprehensive report that not only recommended closing the prison but also condemned its continued operation as “an ongoing threat to US national security.”
The working group joins a chorus of five defense secretaries, eight secretaries of state, six national security advisors, five chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and dozens of retired generals and admirals who have concluded that Guantanamo and the military commissions designed to try prisoners there are irredeemably tainted by the history of torture and cruelty that was American policy under the Bush administration.
Indeed, the loudest and most persistent calls to close the prison have come not from human rights and civil liberties groups but from senior US defense, law enforcement, intelligence, and diplomatic officials – people with a 360-degree view of the costs and benefits of Guantanamo. They know that our national security is best served by closing it.
And yet, Guantanamo remains open. Former President Barack Obama, who made the most serious public commitment to close the prison and developed the clearest exit strategy, was stymied both by congressional action and by his own administration’s loss of nerve in the face of political headwinds. Today, more than 20 years after the United States transferred the first prisoners to Guantanamo, it’s not only the prisoners who are trapped there. It’s our cage, too.
And the costs of being stuck there are enormous: loss of US moral authority, particularly acute now amid the global contest between democracy and authoritarianism; free propaganda for America’s enemies; lack of closure and accountability for the worst terrorist attacks in US history. All this comes at a cost to the American taxpayers of about $540 million a year to maintain the prison. The improvised detention and trial experiment at what Donald Rumsfeld glibly called “the least worst” place to warehouse prisoners in the war on terror has been a moral, legal, strategic, and financial sinkhole for our country.
It’s welcome news that President Joe Biden, having come into office promising to finally close Guantanamo, is quietly reenergizing the drive to get it done. In September, he appointed a new envoy to work exclusively on negotiating host country arrangements for the prisoners cleared for transfer out of Guantanamo. He has also signaled that his administration will not stand in the way of plea negotiations in the cases of the five 9/11 conspirators. Given the sclerotic military commission process, plea deals appear at this point to be the only viable path to resolving these cases and securing justice for the families of 9/11 victims.
We often talk about who we are as a nation, but who we are cannot be separated from what we do. In a recent meeting about strategies for holding Russians accountable for atrocities in Ukraine, Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors said they had studied American mistakes – torture and indefinite detention, to name a couple – and sought to learn from and avoid them. This is the legacy of Guantanamo. As the president who brought US involvement in the war in Afghanistan to an end, it is fitting that Biden should be the one to expunge that legacy and restore America’s reputation for justice and the rule of law. The question is not why or if, but how.
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. Of the nearly 800 men who have passed through the prison, only 36 detainees remain. Two have been convicted by military commissions and 10 others are awaiting trial; three more are being held without charge; and the remaining 21 have been recommended for transfer.
At this point, closing the prison is a risk management exercise, and the risk is clearly manageable. With leadership and persistence from the president, we can finally escape from Guantanamo.