It Costs $72 Million A Year to Hold Cleared Prisoners at Guantánamo


Last week, the exorbitant expense of maintaining the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo was revealed in the Miami Herald, where Carol Rosenberg explained that Congress provided $139 million to operate the prison last year, which, with 171 prisoners still held, works out at $812,865 per prisoner, nearly 30 times as much as it costs to keep a prisoner in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, where the cost per prisoner is $28,284 a year.

In a detailed explanation of the “expensive” and “inefficient” system at Guantánamo, retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, who was the prison’s deputy commander in 2008, said, “It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years.” While stationed at Guantánamo, the Herald noted, “he wrote a secret study that compared the operation to Alcatraz, noting that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had closed it in 1963 because it was too expensive.”

Zanetti, who is now a Seattle-based money manager, pointed out that everything “from paper clips to bulldozers” has to be flown in, or brought in by boat, and argued that the cost of running the prison “deserves a cost-benefit analysis.” He told Carol Rosenberg, “What complicates the overall command further is you have the lawyers, interrogators and guards all operating under separate budgets and command structures. It’s like combining the corporate cultures and budgets of Goldman, Apple and Coke. Business schools would have a field day dissecting the structure of Guantánamo.”

Brig. Gen. Zanetti’s analysis certainly ought to provide an opportunity for critics of Guantánamo, in the administration and in Congress, to fight back against the prison’s cheerleaders, who have pushed hard to keep the prison open and to thwart President Obama’s poorly conceived — and failed — promise to close the prison within a year of taking office.

However, what was not specifically mentioned in this analysis was how, when calculating whether it is acceptable to be spending over $800,000 a head to keep 171 prisoners at Guantánamo, the American people might be interested to know that, while the government intends to try (or has tried) 36 of these men, and has decided to hold 46 others without charge or trial, it does not wish to detain 89 others.

Two years ago, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, comprising career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies, reviewed the files of all the prisoners to work out what to do with them, and concluded that 89 of the 171 remaining prisoners should be released.

Last year, the cost of holding those 89 prisoners was $72,345,029.

If anyone is looking to save money, therefore, they might wish to examine why it is that these 89 men are still held, although they will discover that the answers do not reflect well on either the administration or Congress. Although all of these men were “approved for transfer” out of Guantánamo by the Task Force, 31 of them are still held because it is not safe for them to be repatriated, as they face the risk of torture in their home countries, or because Congress has blocked their release, and the rest are Yemenis, whose release has also been blocked — by the President and by Congress.

The details of the 31 men, who are from a variety of countries, are not entirely clear, because the administration has not publicly identified who has been “approved for transfer.” However, it is clear that this group includes the last five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), who won their habeas corpus petitions over three years ago, in October 2008.

Since then 12 other Uighurs have been released — in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland — but the five remain because they refused the new homes they were offered, fearing that they would not be safe from the long reach of the Chinese government. No other country has offered to take them, and President Obama, his Justice Department, Congress and the Supreme Court have all made it clear that they have no desire to offer them — or any other refugee in Guantánamo — a home in the United States, the country that wrongly imprisoned them in the first place.

Others are from countries with dubious human rights records — Syria, for example — and others are almost certainly victims of a restriction included by Congress as part of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, in which, as the Washington Post explained in an article last week, lawmakers “demanded that the defense secretary certify that he would ‘ensure’ that a freed ‘individual cannot engage or re-engage in any terrorist activity.'” As Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, explained in a speech last month at the Heritage Foundation, “This provision is onerous and near impossible to satisfy.”

Outside of these 31 individuals, the 58 Yemenis are also subjected to the problems highlighted by Jeh Johnson, and are saddled with other problems too. Although 28 of them could have been sent home with seven of their compatriots the week before Christmas in 2009, a failed attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb in his underwear derailed plans for their release, apparently indefinitely.

In respond to an uproar following a revelation that the man in question, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, President Obama bowed to pressure and issued a moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis from Guantánamo. This shows no sign of being dropped, even though some of the men “approved for transfer” by Obama’s Task Force were first approved for release from Guantánamo by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2004, and even though blanket bans of this sort are nothing less than “guilt by nationality.”

For the remaining 30 Yemenis, a further obstacle to their release is that, although they too were “approved for transfer,” the Task Force created a special category for them, declaring that they should be held in “conditional detention” at Guantánamo until the security situation in Yemen improved.

With such obstacles, it is uncertain when any of these 89 prisoners will be released, but in the meantime, as American justice groans under the burden of layers of dubious impositions designed to prevent the release of any of these men — whether innocent, cleared by a court, or cleared by Bush’s military review boards seven years ago — America’s coffers are also suffering. This is not just because of the $72 million that it cost to hold these men last year, but also because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that it has cost to hold them for nearly ten years, or the billions of dollars that — in total — have been spent on holding them and hundreds of other prisoners already released.

On the other hand, if you prefer to look to the future rather than the past, as President Obama does, then you may wish to reflect on the billions of dollars that will be spent on holding these men in future — as the years turn into decades, and they begin to die of old age — until someone in authority finds a way to bring this dark and disgraceful farce to an end.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    how much will domestic ‘enemy combatants’ cost as they widen the ‘war on drugs/opinions/privacy rights/terrorist’ message?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Gould wrote:

    This brings dishonour to the USA and is a disgrace in the so called Land of the Free. Its continuing presence is an affront to human rights and an insult to the country that was once called United.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David, for the heartfelt commentary. And Allison, I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the US establishment can handle dissent without resorting to treating the angry and the dispossessed as “the enemy within.”

  4. Andy Worthington says...

  5. Andy Worthington says...

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Allison. I take your point, but as the intro to that article states, “Probably 97 percent of police act professionally toward protesters. But the other 3 percent are armed and dangerous, and know that they’re unlikely to be held accountable.” I know about FBI raids on activists, as well, and I wouldn’t say that there’s nothing to worry about for activists and protestors, as there clearly is, but we’re not really dealing with a police state until the police start uniformly acting as a domestic army to suppress dissent with extreme violence — and deaths. As the challenge to the status quo increases, we need to be very alert about what’s happening, I agree, because the reason we have so much protest taking place is because all the established political parties are in bed with big business and the bankers, and all seem to agree that we count for very little. How little we count may well be about to be tested big-time.

    And Laurie Ann, thanks for that link to my friend and colleague Jason Leopold’s latest article for Truthout, which is recommended reading.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    oh heavens, I’m not referring to cops as being bad folks, I’m talking about the pressure on them to ‘obey unquestioningl’ from corporations, arms dealers, private security companies & ‘force cutbacks’ – we agree on this

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I know what you mean, Allison, and I broadly agree, of course. I’m just waiting to see what will happen if the police are pushed into more and more violent confrontation. I know what I expect to happen; just saying that it’s not yet written in stone.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    ‎” …PERF’s current and former directors read as a who’s who of police chiefs involved in crackdowns on anti-globalization and political convention protesters resulting in thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries, and millions of dollars paid out in police brutality and wrongful arrest lawsuits.

    These current and former U.S. police chiefs — along with top ranking police union officials and representatives from Canadian and British police — have been marketing to municipal police forces and politicians their joint experiences as specialists on policing mass demonstrations.

    Chairing PERF’s board of directors is Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former Washington D.C. Metro Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who was responsible for coordinating the police response to protests against international banking institutions including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Those protests, and Ramsey’s response to massive anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC in the lead up the the Iraq War, often resulted in preemptive mass arrest of participants that were later deemed to be unconstitutional.

    Ramsey’s predecessor as organization chair is former Philadelphia Police Commissioner and former Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who is responsible for the so called “Miami Model,” coined after the police crackdown on the 2003 Free Trade Agreement of the Americas protest. … ”

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Allison. Yes, point taken — and I do live in the UK, so I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I’m not aware of how the police here have a history of infiltrating peaceful protest groups, how they pioneered the use of “kettling” and are capable of great violence when the state requires. We’ll still have to see whether they accept being used as a paramilitary force as they were in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher against the miners, the travellers (culminating in the Battle of the Beanfield) and the printers, but in recent memory, we have the killing of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, whch has acted as a great dampener on protest in general.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Karen Todd wrote:

    the cost in things other than moola? immeasurable –

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Karen. The cost is almost insignificant compared to the damage to the notion that America believes in justice, and wouldn’t allow its leaders to approve the use of torture, to name just two side-effects of the “war on terror.” Personally, I always find it depressing the extent to which so many Americans — forgetting or ignoring what happened to Jose Padilla and Anwar al-Awlaki — are thoroughly complacent about whatever the government does to foreign Muslims on a naval outpost in Cuba, as though it is perfectly acceptable to flaunt such nationalistic self-obsession and “exceptionalism” to the rest of the world.

    That said, I did think that some people would respond to being presented with the bill for the above — and I am trying a variety of approaches to highlight the fact that the US government doesn’t even want to continue holding those 89 men who currently cost $72 million to imprison.

  13. Dr. Christopher Wood says...

    Except that Guantánamo is not “Bush’s Guantánamo”; he’s not in power; it’s President Obama’s Guantánamo – he’s the guy in charge now and for the first two years of his administration his party also controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate – if President Obama wanted to close Guantánamo he could have done so.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Dr. Wood, hence my reference to “President Obama’s poorly conceived — and failed — promise to close the prison within a year of taking office,” and my regular commentary about his failures. He was also let down by members of his own party in Congress, but, as President and Commander-in-Chief, the buck stops with him.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Karen Todd wrote (in response to 12):

    oh yes….america- all glitz – no glory

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Karen. And thanks also to everyone who has shared this. It’s very much appreciated.

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  19. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks for covering this Andy. Kudos to Carol Rosenberg for ferreting this out.

    One might think that as the number of captives at Guantanamo shrinks the number of guards and support workers might shrink too. However, I don’t think this is happening.

    Every week I download the weekly newspaper published at Guantanamo — entitled “The Wire”.
    They have their own online archive, but there is a parallel archive at the wikimedia commons

    Rather than a shrinking base, that weekly newspaper documents new gyms, more permanent after hours clubs, replacement barracks that are more comfortable for the troopers.

    Another hidden cost hawks should recognize is that the base tied down the equivalent of a brigade’s worth of GIs. At the time of the “surge” of troops to Iraq, wouldn’t hawks have been extremely grateful if one further brigade couldn’t have been fielded, using troops shifted around from the closure of Guantanamo?

  20. arcticredriver says...

    Regarding the comment that the buck stops with the President. Most americans know President Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here”. They may not know it was a gift, made by convicts in a prison carpentry shop.

    Anyhow, I read an update circulated shortly after the Abu Ghraib. It said something like:

    In the Truman White House Truman said about responsibility that “the buck stops here”. But in the Bush White House responsibility stops at the buck private.

  21. arcticredriver says...

    Regarding publications that show the base expanding — here is the official archive of “The Wire”, the weekly newspaper published by JTF-GTMO: Even though the camp is slightly less than ten years old they just started volume 13, as some volumes don’t contain 52 weeks worth of issues.

    There is another publication “The Guantanamo Bay Gazette”. It is the publication of the Naval Base staff itself. I think they are at volume 67 or 68. Only a couple of recent years are online, and they aren’t all in the same place.

    There seem to be dozens or hundreds of similar newspapers, published for the personnel at particular bases. There is, I believe, a newspaper published for the troops in Task Force 435 — the group responsible for captives in Afghanistan.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver — and yes, I’m grateful indeed to Carol Rosenberg for picking up on the figures. I also appreciate all your work monitoring the US military’s magazines. The Afghan one might be interesting.
    And you make some very good points about the expansion of Guantanamo …

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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