Biden Administration Announces “Robust” Review of Guantánamo, and “Intention” to Close the Prison


President Biden, and a screenshot of the Gitmo Clock website run by the Close Guantánamo campaign, founded by Andy Worthington and Tom Wilner in 2012, showing how long the prison has been open today, Feb. 15, 2021.

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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.

On Friday (Feb. 12), campaigners hoping that the Biden administration will commit to the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay were further reassured when White House press secretary Jen Psaki, “[a]sked whether Biden would shut” the prison “by the time his presidency ends,” as Reuters described it, told reporters, “That certainly is our goal and our intention.”

“There will be a robust interagency policy,” Psaki added, also noting that “[t]here are many players from different agencies who need to be part of this policy discussion about the steps forward.”

The comments were the first to be made publicly by administration officials since defense secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate in written testimony during his confirmation hearing, “I believe it is time for the detention facility at Guantánamo to close its doors,” although, as the Associated Press noted, “The announcement of a closure plan was not unexpected. Biden had said as a candidate he supported closing the detention center.”

Following up, Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told Reuters, “We are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantánamo,” adding, “The NSC will work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice to make progress toward closing the GTMO facility, and also in close consultation with Congress.”

However, “[s]ignaling that deliberations are still at an early stage,” as Reuters described it, Horne also said that “a number of key policy roles still need to be filled,” in the relevant government departments, adding, “We need to have the right people seated to do this important work.”

Reuters noted that “two people familiar with the matter” had told them that “[a]ides involved in internal discussions are considering an executive action to be signed by Biden in coming weeks or months,” signaling what the news agency described as “a new effort to remove what human rights advocates have called a stain on America’s global image” — although narrowing criticism simply to “human rights advocates” rather tends to underplay the extent to which Guantánamo, as a place of, largely, indefinite detention without charge or trial, is actually an affront to everyone who believes in the rule of law.

For the New York Times, however, veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg suggested that the “executive order” idea, which came from a “leaked Biden administration transition plan,” has apparently been abandoned in favor of the NSA-led process.

Rosenberg noted how, in a recent interview, Representative Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and a proponent of the prison’s closure, said that, “rather than seek to close it by executive order, the administration should ‘build the argument and the case that this is the right policy’ in order to change the law.”

He added that he “thought politicians might be more receptive to the idea of moving the last few prisoners to the United States” because Guantánamo “is not a cost-effective place to detain 40 individuals,” costing at least $13 million a year for each of the 40 men still held.

Nevertheless, closing Guantánamo, as Rosenberg describes it, “has become a political flash point, with supporters of keeping the prison open accusing supporters of closing it of being soft on terrorism or being willing to bring accused terrorists onto American soil.” She noted, however, that Smith “bristled at the suggestion,” pointing out that the 40 prisoners at Guantánamo are no “more dangerous than the hundreds of terrorists, not to mention sociopathic murderers and pedophiles and child killers and all manner of evil who we safely incarcerate in the United States of America.”

Republican obstruction

Despite this, Republicans have a long history of opposing efforts by the Democrats to close Guantánamo. Under Barack Obama, when Joe Biden was Vice President, they responded to his executive order promising to close Guantánamo by “outlawing the transfer of any detainee to the United States for any reason — not for trial, imprisonment or medical treatment,” as Carol Rosenberg described it.

Reuters pointed out that the federal government “is still barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the US mainland,” and that, “Even with his own Democratic party now controlling Congress, their majorities are so slim that Biden would face a tough challenge securing legislative changes because some Democrats might also oppose them.”

Some progress can, however, be made initially without Congress. As Reuters described it, “A revived Guantánamo strategy is expected to focus initially on further decreasing the number of prisoners by repatriating them or finding other countries to accept them, according to the people familiar with the matter.” This will probably involve re-establishing the State Department post of the Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which was “created by Obama but eliminated by Trump, to resume negotiations with other governments on detainee transfers.”

In addition, the parole-type Periodic Review Board process, which led to the release of 36 prisoners under Obama, can and should be vigorously revived under Biden. Although it nominally continued under Trump, its panels of military and intelligence officials failed to recommend a single prisoner for release until just months before Trump’s departure, with most hearings boycotted by the prisoners, who had concluded that, under Trump, the entire process had become a sham.

However, opposition remains in Congress. After Gen. Austin told the Senate that the new administration would seek the closure of Guantánamo, his comments, as Reuters described it, “drew a letter of rebuke signed by seven Republican House members, all military veterans.”

Representative Mike Waltz, one of the signatories, claimed in a tweet, “If we release these GITMO detainees, they’ll become rockstars in the Islamist Extremist world, posing an even greater threat to America and the world.”

Furthermore, after Friday’s announcement, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said, “The Democrats’ obsession with bringing terrorists into Americans’ backyards is bizarre, misguided, and dangerous. Just like with President Obama, Republicans will fight it tooth and nail.”

While these comments are ludicrous, they are an important reminder of the fanatical opposition to the closure of Guantánamo that exists in some Republican circles, and whatever the Biden administration plans, it will need to be committed.

Guantánamo can be closed

Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we will continue to point out that, 19 years since the prison at Guantánamo opened, it is outrageous and indefensible that six of the 40 men still held are still held despite having been approved for release by high-level government review processes, and that 22 others are specifically and unjustly held indefinitely without charge or trial, and we believe that President Biden and his administration should make the release of as many of these men as possible a priority.

For the others, facing charges in the military commission trial system, justice needs to be delivered in a forum that, unlike the commissions, is not caught up endlessly in a struggle by the prosecutors to hide all evidence of the men’s torture in CIA “black sites,” and who seem not to notice that that struggle undermines all efforts at justice.

Closing the prison may look difficult, but it is important for the Biden administration to remember that it is possible. And as we have been pointing out — and will continue to point out — no president should want the responsibility of marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of a shamefully lawless place like Guantánamo, and yet that anniversary is just eleven months away.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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.

22 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article — my response to statements about the Biden administration’s proposed closure of Guantanamo that were made on February 12 by White House press secretary Jen Psaki. Asked whether President Biden would shut the prison before the end of his presidency, Psaki told reporters, “That certainly is our goal and our intention.”

    We look forward to hearing more from the administration soon; in particular, regarding the appointment of an official to deal with the release and resettlement of prisoners. Six of the 40 men still held have been approved for release — three in 2010, two in 2016, and one just before Donald Trump lost the election.

    it seems likely that President Biden needs to revive the role of the Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, created by President Obama but shut down by Trump, to make arrangements for these men to be freed, followed by a review of the 22 “forever prisoners” — those not charged and facing trials — with the specific intention of approving their release unless they are going to be charged and put on trial.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Victims of horrific abuse and torture shouldn’t suffer for even one more day! Even if closing it takes some admin surely the torture and the vile conditions of hell can end today!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. Anyone who shares your outrage can send a message directly to President Biden at the White House:

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Thanks for the link, Andy. It galvanised me to write immediately!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 Anna!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Hope his “intentions” turn into actions. I know we disagree in this, but Obomber never meant to close it.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Obama meant to close it by moving some prisoners to continued imprisonment on the US mainland, Natalia, which myself and others were convinced would lead to new legal challenges, because the Constitution applies on the mainland, but it never happened, of course, because Obama retreated from using his powers as commander in chief to locate a suitable facility after Republicans in Congress prohibited him from spending federal funds to do so. I’m not sure now if moving prisoners to the mainland will even be on the cards, but I do think that the administration will be persuaded to release as many insignificant prisoners as possible.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Teller wrote:

    I’m hoping, too! Maybe Biden will actually fulfill one of his empty promises …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Whatever happens, I’m convinced there will be movement in the right direction, Jane. There are numerous organizations and individuals reminding the Biden administration that they’re holding six men still who have been unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes, and others whose status as “forever prisoners” is simply unjustifiable.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jane Teller wrote:

    I’m keeping my hopes up, Andy. And then maybe the US will up and leave Guantanamo finally and give it back to Cuba!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    We can but hope, Jane. I’d love to see a US administration committed to reducing the number of military bases the US has around the world, but somehow it never seems to happen …

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    I think this is wonderful news – and Andy – all your work since 2012 coming to fruition – we hope. And that illegal hell hole closed – and justice and dignity for the men still left after years and years – brilliant….. xxxxxxx

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Let’s wait and see what actually happens, Lindis, but after four years of Trump, in which just one man left Guantanamo – transferred to his home country of Saudi Arabia to continue serving a prison sentence – it will be a cause for celebration when any of the remaining 40 prisoners are freed.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Yes Andy – of course wait and see…..but the noises coming out of the White House are very different than previously.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh yes, very much so, Lindis. What a nightmare those four years of Trump were!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Gunnar Øyro wrote:

    How many black sites does the US have worldwide, and how many inmates?

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    The “black site” program was officially shut down by President Obama, Gunnar, although there has been concern that some prisoners have continued to be subjected to torture techniques in forward operating facilities, because Appendix M of the Army Field Manual permits their use. It’s not a topic we’ve heard much about for many years, and it doesn’t appear to constitute a formal program in any meaningful way, but it’s still a concern.

    On another note, in 2019 there was a detailed report about “thousands of incidents of force-feeding against prisoners under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) in federal prison, in direct violation of medical ethics and in some circumstances international law.” Prisoners in SAMS are largely cut off from the outside world, and it was noted that “the investigation leaves little doubt that human rights abuses perpetrated against hunger strikers at Guantanamo, often to widespread public outrage, are also occurring on American soil.”


  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Gunnar Øyro wrote:

    Thanks. Andy. In “Defending Julian Assange”, Courage Foundation writes that “The Trump administration seeks to turn Europe and the rest of the world into a legal Guantanamo Bay. The US seeks to apply its laws to European journalists and publishers and at the same time strip them of constitutional rights”. So maybe US does not need black sites anymore?

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I think it’s fair to say that the US treats the whole world as though it belongs to them, Gunnar. It’s been the case with the kidnapping of people in the “war on terror”, it’s how the drone program has operated, involving extrajudicial assassinations in countries that the US isn’t even at war with, and it’s the case when it comes to journalists and publishers like Julian Assange.

  20. Anna says...

    And then there’s this : “Canada, US and (56) allies denounce ‘immoral’ arbitrary detentions of foreign nationals”.
    But of course their nationals who are detained that way, are without exception perfectly innocent victims of lawless rogue countries…

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    So the US continues its naked hypocrisy, Anna, condemning others for what it’s doing itself at Guantanamo:

    Thanks for notifying me of that. I’d missed it. Although it seems aimed at foreign nationals imprisoned as pawns in power struggles between countries, the wording of Al-Jazeera’s description of what the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations is intended to tackle could, equally, apply to those held at Guantanamo who have never been charged with a crime: “the state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign nationals for political purposes.”

  22. Close Guantanamo then "Tangled Up in Blue" on Peace & Justice, Feb 24 at 9am - WSLR+Fogartyville says...

    […] on terror.”  He’s the co-founder websites Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. See his response to statements about the Biden administration’s proposed closure of Guantánamo made on February […]

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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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