Ever since the inauguration of Joe Biden as President, nearly seven months ago, an impressive and unprecedented number of organizations and significant individuals have been queuing up to urge him to finally close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, that wretched symbol of executive overreach created as part of the misguided “war on terror” that the Bush administration launched in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In January, seven former prisoners (all authors) had a letter published in the New York Review of Books calling for the prison’s closure, followed in February by a letter from 111 human rights organizations, including the Close Guantánamo campaign, which I co-founded in January 2012 with the U.S. attorney Tom Wilner.
There have also been op-eds by former Bill Clinton advisor Anthony Lake and Tom Wilner, by Lee Wolosky, the former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure in the State Department, by retired Rear Admirals Donald J. Guter and John Hutson, by former CIA analyst Gail Helt, by Valerie Lucznikowska of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, by the attorney Benjamin R. Farley, who represents one of the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, as part of the DoD’s Military Commissions Defense Organization, and by Omar Ashmawy, a former prosecutor in the military commissions.
Most significant was a letter sent to President Biden in April by 24 Democratic Senators, including Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein, who not only demanded the prison’s closure, but also included detailed explanations of how that is possible.
Two weeks ago, on August 4, 75 members of the House of Representatives added their voices to those noted above, with Congressman David Price (D-NC), Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) delivering a letter to President Biden that also called for the prison’s closure, and also provided details of how that can be achieved.
Congressman David Price said, “The detention facility at Guantánamo Bay has been a stain on our country’s credibility and international standing, and with only 39 remaining detainees, the exorbitant cost and unworkable commission process are simply unsustainable. Even in our darkest moments, we must always uphold core American values, including respect for the rule of law, due process, and human rights. It is time we work together to finally close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”
Today, and for the foreseeable future, sadly, the ongoing need for Guantánamo to be closed is likely to be overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan as a result of President Biden’s rush to end the U.S. occupation, and by the Taliban’s swift advance on Kabul, which fell without a fight yesterday, as President Ashraf Ghani fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan.
Nevertheless, for those of us who care about the fate of the 39 men still held at Guantánamo, it is imperative that the message of President Biden’s colleagues continues to be heard — not least because the nearly 20-year existence of the prison has, from the beginning, exemplified all that was wrong with the U.S.-led occupation; in particular, the disdain for international norms regarding the capture and treatment of prisoners seized in wartime, which led to the establishment of brutal, lawless prisons in Afghanistan, most noticeably at Bagram, as well as Guantánamo, and which also led to Guantánamo being filled with insignificant foot soldiers and civilians, including around 220 Afghans, many of whom had actually supported the U.S. efforts to depose the Taliban, but had been betrayed by rivals, who took advantage of the U.S.’s almost complete lack of intelligence regarding who to trust in their broken efforts at nation-building.
Of the 39 men still held, only 12 are facing, or have faced trials. Ten others have been approved for release, while the 17 others are “forever prisoners,” held indefinitely without charge or trial. The Representatives express their belief that “some detainees can and should be tried in our federal courts, which have demonstrated they can effectively, fairly, and quickly try terrorism cases,” and that others, who will not be tried, “should be repatriated to their home countries or settled in third countries with appropriate conditions and assurances for both their treatment and U.S. security.”
They also call on the administration to “prioritize further reducing the prison’s population” by “re-establish[ing] the office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Prison Closure at the State Department or creat[ing] an analogous position,” and securing the release of the ten men already approved for release, and they also remind the administration of the U.S.’s “responsibility to treat detainees at the Guantánamo prison humanely and make appropriate accommodations to provide for their medical care,” and call for “greater transparency in the military commission process,” and they end their letter by pledging their “full support” for Biden’s “efforts to close the prison once and for all.”
The text of the letter is posted below.
The 75 House Representatives’ Letter to President Biden Calling for the Closure of the Prison at Guantánamo Bay
Congress of the United States
Washington, D.C. 20510
August 4, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Biden:
We write in strong support of your stated goal to close the prison at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay. We share your belief that after nearly two decades and tremendous expense, it is time to close the prison and seek prompt resolutions for the cases of the remaining detainees. We ask that as you take the steps necessary to finally close the prison, you act immediately to further reduce its population, ensure that the remaining detainees are treated humanely, and increase the transparency of military commission proceedings at the Guantánamo detention facility.
The prison at Guantánamo has held nearly 800 prisoners throughout its history but currently holds only 39 men, many aging and increasingly infirm. According to reports, the prison costs over $500 million per year to operate, at a staggering annual cost of $13 million per prisoner, over 350 times the cost of incarcerating a prisoner at a maximum-security facility in the United States. And after nearly two decades, and numerous efforts at reform, the military commission process remains dysfunctional.
We were pleased to see that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed it is the “intention” of the Administration to close Guantánamo, which Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also confirmed in written answers during his confirmation process. We also understand that the National Security Council has begun a review of the status of the Guantánamo detention facility with the intention of closing it — a process that we support and welcome.
The continued operation of the prison is a stain on our international reputation and undermines our ability to advocate for human rights and the rule of law. The halting pace of justice is painful for victims and survivors of terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the USS Cole and the September 11 attacks, which some of the detainees at the Guantánamo detention facility are accused of planning or carrying out.
We recognize that closing the prison will take time, but we believe the time has come with your leadership. We believe that some detainees can and should be tried in our federal courts, which have demonstrated they can effectively, fairly, and quickly try terrorism cases. Other detainees should be repatriated to their home countries or settled in third countries with appropriate conditions and assurances for both their treatment and U.S. security.
As you seek to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, we urge you to consider three important priorities:
First, we ask that the Administration prioritize further reducing the prison’s population. We recommend that you analyze and expeditiously respond as you determine appropriate resolutions in the cases involving ten detainees who have been cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force or the Periodic Review Board, and yet remain at the prison: Toffiq al-Bihani, Sufyian Barhoumi, Ridah Bin Saleh Al-Yazidi, Muieen Adeen Al-Sattar, Said Salih Said Nashir, Saifullah Paracha, Abdul Rabbani, and Uthman Abdul al-Rahim Uthman [and Abdulsalam al-Hela and Sharqawi al-Hajj]. The first step in that process should be to immediately re-establish the office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Prison Closure at the State Department or create an analogous position.
Second, we have a responsibility to treat detainees at the Guantánamo prison humanely and make appropriate accommodations to provide for their medical care. Specifically, we are aware of concerns that the medical records of some detainees are not being made available to the detainees or their representatives in a timely fashion, purportedly based on the claim that the withheld records are classified in whole or in part. We are particularly concerned about claims, including by the Center for Victims of Torture and Physicians for Human Rights, that “medical needs [of detainees] are subordinated to security functions.” It is important that complete medical information be made available to detainees and their representatives in a timely fashion in a way that appropriately protects any legitimately classified information.
Finally, we support providing greater transparency in the military commission process, a step that would further public understanding of the proceedings there and provide benefits to victims’ families and others. Currently, to observe commission proceedings, journalists, human rights organizations, and victims’ families must either travel to Guantánamo — which was difficult even prior to the pandemic — or watch on closed-circuit broadcasts available on a limited number of military bases. In 2019, the House passed a provision expressing the view of Congress that military commission judges should make proceedings available over the internet. This vote followed a 2019 report by the General Accountability Office that found no technical barriers to making these proceedings publicly available. Given the glacial pace of the commission process, we believe that transparency would be beneficial.
The prison at Guantánamo represents a fundamental betrayal of our values and our commitment as a country to the rule of law. You have our full support in your efforts to close the prison once and for all. We stand ready to work with you to remove impediments to closure, and we look forward to working closely with your administration to finally achieve that goal.
Representatives Alma Adams (D-NC), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Jamal Bowman (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Andre Carson (D-Ill.), Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), David Cicilline (D-RI), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Rose DeLauro (D-Conn.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Dwight Evans (D-Penn.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Jesus “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), Hank Johnson (D-Geor.), Mondaire Jones (D-NY), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), John Larson (D-Conn.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Grace Meng (D-NY), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Eleanor Norton (D-DC), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), David Price (D-NC), Jamie Raskin (D-Mary.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), Mary Scanlon (D-Penn.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Paul Tonko (D-NY), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Peter Welch (D-Ver.), and John Yarmuth (D-Kent.).
Note: To follow up on the letter, please feel free to contact Taylor Doggett, the Communications Director for Congressman Price, Lauren French, the Communications Director for Congressman Schiff, and Jacklyn Rogers, the Press Secretary/Digital Director for Congresswoman Omar.