As $738 Billion Defense Bill Is Passed, Guantánamo Prisoners Are Ignored by Congress


A collaged image of the US Congress, and a prisoner at Guantánamo.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Two months ago, I reviewed the situation at Guantánamo as it relates to Congress, providing a succinct summary of the extent to which Congress has — and hasn’t — been involved in establishing and maintaining the prison since it first opened nearly 18 years ago, and establishing that Congress has largely been complicit in the existence of Guantánamo.

Lawmakers facilitated its creation under George W. Bush, and, when both the Senate and the House were controlled by Republicans under Barack Obama, imposed restrictions on Obama’s efforts to close the prison, in the annual National Defense Authorisation Act (NDAA), that largely remain in place today.

These restrictions — on the countries to which prisoners can be released, on the transfer of any prisoner to the US mainland for any reason, and on spending any money to create a replacement for Guantánamo on the US mainland, or to close the facility in Cuba — largely make no difference under Donald Trump, because Trump has no interest in releasing prisoners, or in closing Guantánamo under any circumstances. As explained, the requirements regarding Guantánamo in the NDAA “fall in line with Trump’s Jan. 2018 executive order to keep Guantánamo open indefinitely.”

However, it is dispiriting that all of these restrictions remain in place in the NDAA for 2020 that was signed into law just before Christmas, because it is, frankly, unforgivable for either the president or Congress to behave as though there is any justification for Guantánamo’s continued existence, when that is simply not the case.

Sadly, however, most of the mainstream media reports about the NDAA have failed to adequately address how dispiriting it is that Republicans continue to defend the apparently never-ending existence of Guantánamo, instead being distracted by Trump’s introduction, via the NDAA, of ‘Space Force,’ “the first new military service in more than 70 years,” as the Associated Press explained, and, generally, behaving as though it is somehow normal for any country on earth to have a military bill of $738 billion.

As I explained in my article two months ago, there was hope earlier this year for positive movement on Guantánamo in the 2020 NDAA, because Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, and the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, had attempted to put Guantánamo back on the table in the House version of the bill.

As Just Security explained in June, Smith’s version of the bill “rescind[ed] in part restrictions on the president’s authority to transfer prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, ban[ned] bringing new detainees to Guantánamo for detention or trial by military commission, require[d] the Attorney General to submit a plan — other than continued law of war detention — for the remaining detainees, and expresse[d] concern about the ability of the United States Government to provide adequate medical care for the aging detainee population.”

By September, unfortunately, everything progressive had disappeared from the House Armed Services Committee’s final version of the bill — with the exception of a passage banning the use of funds to transfer any additional prisoners — including US citizens — to Guantánamo.

However, that passage too was removed when the House and Senate versions of the bill were consolidated, as, irritatingly, did a proposal by both the House and the Senate committees to allow seriously ill prisoners to be temporarily brought to the US mainland for urgent medical treatment that is either difficult or impossible to provide at Guantánamo. Not for nothing did Roll Call note, in an article published on December 10, that “the word from a large number of angry Democrats in Congress, their supporters and, more discreetly, from many Republicans” was that the Democrats “got completely rolled” in the NDAA negotiations.

The only additional passage to add to the bans mentioned above that survived into the final version was a requirement for there to be a Chief Medical Officer appointed to oversee the health of the Guantánamo prisoners, who “shall be an officer of the Armed Forces who holds a grade not below the grade of colonel, or captain in the Navy,” and who “shall be assigned [by] and report to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.”

This, presumably, was a small measure to try and guarantee that the increasing incidents of serious illness amongst the inevitably aging population of Guantánamo will be properly monitored, but it is a tiny gesture of responsibility in what is otherwise a bleak continuation of Guantánamo as a facility that is sealed shut, with no one leaving under any circumstances, and with Congress content for that to be the case, even though only nine of the 40 men still held are going through or have gone through any kind of trial process, and even though five of the 40 were unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes under President Obama, but were not released before he left office.

As for the 26 others, although they are supposed to have their cases reviewed regularly by Periodic Review Boards (a parole-type process established under Obama), they have all been boycotting that process, as no one has been approved for release since Trump took office, and the prisoners have correctly concluded that it is a sham.

Back in June, when a Guantánamo case was turned down by the Supreme Court (as has happened without exception since the Court last intervened on behalf of the prisoners in 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush, granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights), Justice Stephen Breyer attached a statement expressing concern that the Court’s ruling in 2004’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, allowing detention for the “duration of the relevant conflict,” had, because of the long passage of time, become a ruling that “could amount to ‘perpetual detention.’”

It remains to be seen whether Justice Breyer’s concerns are shared by his fellow Justices, but it is at least a hint on the part of the Supreme Court that there is something wrong with indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, even though both the president and Congress seem to be entirely happy with holding men forever without the kind of due process that the rest of us take for granted.

As we approach 2020 — an election year — we can only hope that, this time next year, we will have a new president and a new configuration of Congress, and that both understand that “business as usual” at Guantánamo is completely unacceptable, and that rigorous steps must be taken to lead to the prison’s closure once and for all.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, cross-posted from, about the passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The new NDAA, sadly, maintains restrictions on the release of Guantanamo prisoners, and on any moves towards the prison’s closure, that have been part of the NDAA for many years, ever since the Republicans took control of Congress under President Obama.

    Sadly, although Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, they were unable to amend the repressive Guantanamo legislation in the final version of the NDAA that was consolidated with the Republican-controlled Senate.

    With 2020’s election year about to begin, it is a good time to reflect on the need for Republicans to be removed from power in the White House and throughout Congress if there is to be any positive movement towards the closure of Guantanamo by the time of the 20th anniversary of its opening, which is just two years away, on January 11, 2022.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Of course they were ignored – like they have been since Obama signed the NDAA in the dark of night on New Year’s Eve 2011. No one in politics will take up the cause of justice.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    And yet only politicians can close Guantanamo, Jan, so we have to keep making the case for them to do so, although sadly, as 2020 is about to begin, the Democrats look as likely as in 2016 to put forward a candidate who won’t win, and who, in any case, will think it acceptable to have a military budget of $738 billion (which casually includes keeping Guantanamo open).

  4. Anna says...

    Oh Andy, I am not even capable of concentrating on this – in spite of your usual clear and coherent writing – with what is happening in Baghdad right now. How much longer will the bloody hypocritical, arrogant, criminal, terrorist, murderous, moron assassins in Washington be allowed to continue their world-wide carnage, before the rest of the ‘civilised’ world, including the EU and UN, will finally say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH ? It’s sickening to read the half-hearted reactions ‘urging everyone to use restraint’, no one mentioning the gigantic elephant in the room : the bloody US government which all the while criticises other countries for being ‘terrorists.’
    Assassinating all around the world anyone they do not like, without the slightest trace of due process, while claiming that they do so in ‘self-defence’ and calling their victims terrorists. Since when do Iranians or Iraqis attack US citizens in the US? If they do not want to have any attacked in the middle east, they should not have attacked and occupied Iraq to start with. Claiming that they ‘lawfully’ killed someone who for 20 years was a terrorist danger to the US, while those from the US have been a much bigger danger to Iran since 1953, not to mention so many other countries in that region and beyond. Orwell’s distopia is beginning to look like a fairytale compared with reality.
    Why cannot Iraq and Iran, neigbours and in theory sovereign countries, settle their disputes themselves, without the bloody US meddling and fanning the flames!

    What chance have the prisoners in Guantanamo in such a political constellation? How far down the pecking order of US government’s victims are those defenceless men?
    The US – for all the sympathy I have for so many things and particularly people there – needs far more than impeaching a president who in addition to being murderous is a moron, it needs a massive people’s uprising. Fat chance …

    But the fight must go on, even in the face of absurd bstacles. Have a good and fruitful trip with the like-minded friends.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m not surprised you’re distracted by the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Anna. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was shocked to see the news yesterday morning – just before Dot and I went away to the coast for 24 hours.
    However, I almost immediately saw it as the profoundly cynical move of a threatened president in an election year – of course! start a war! – urged on by those who have been trying to start a war with Iran since 1979’s revolution.
    What a disaster – and quickly glancing at the front pages of the supine British newspapers this morning didn’t help.
    But the rest of our work must go on, so yes, I’ll do my best to keep focusing on Guantanamo over the coming weeks, and I look forward to connecting with like-minded friends.

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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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