Lee Wolosky, Former Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, Calls on President Biden to Close the Prison


A composite image of former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure Lee Woloskwy, and Camp 6 at Guantánamo, photographed in 2010.

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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.

It’s now two weeks since the end of the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, when there was a short flurry of mainstream media interest in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which has been largely ignored by the Biden administration since taking office, except for brief mentions of embarking on a “robust” review of the prison’s operations, and an “intention” to secure its closure.

To mark Biden’s first 100 days, I cross-posted an op-ed written for The Hill by Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton from 1993 to 1997, and Tom Wilner, who represented the Guantánamo prisoners in their Supreme Court cases in 2004 and 2008, and with whom I co-founded the Close Guantánamo campaign in 2012.

I’m following up on that article with another cross-post, of an op-ed written for the New York Times by Lee Wolosky, the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure under President Obama, from July 2015 until the end of Obama’s presidency, who, as Karen Greenberg explained in a 2017 article, “The Forever Prisoners of Guantanamo,” secured “the release to various willing countries of 75 prisoners, nearly 40% of the Gitmo population Obama had inherited.”

Wolosky, who also served on the National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, brings a government insider’s perspective to the ongoing national shame of Guantánamo’s continued existence, urging President Biden to close the prison not only as a follow-up to his recent promise “to fully withdraw US troops from Afghanistan,” which he describes as “a significant step” toward “extricating the United States” from “its longest war,” but also to extricate the US from “massive national security architecture defined by the threat of foreign terrorism,” whose scale, he notes, shocked him when he took the Special Envoy post in 2015, having “left the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate in the weeks before 9/11.”

As well as recognizing Guantánamo as “a recruitment tool for extremists and a blot on our national character,” Wolosky recalls being “shocked by the bureaucracy of thousands of government employees built around Guantánamo,” in which “[h]undreds of millions of dollars were being spent annually to maintain the facility,” adding that this was “just one small component of the global war on terror.”

Explicitly, he states that “[t]he large, unwieldy federal counterterrorism bureaucracy must be trimmed,” with resources redirected to other threats from abroad, as well as “[t]he increasing threat from domestic extremism,” which “has been far more lethal to Americans in recent years than foreign terrorism.”

Specifically focusing on Guantánamo and the 40 men still held, Wolosky calls for the immediate release of the six men still held who were approved for release by high-level US government review processes, for the 12 men in the military commission trial system to be moved to the US mainland, and for the 22 others — the “forever prisoners” held indefinitely without charge or trial — to also be released, “subject to the negotiation of suitable security arrangements with other countries, including possible foreign prosecution.”

On this latter point, he specifically mentions the case of “the Kenyan detainee Abdul Malik, suspected of committing two terror attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, killing 13 people,” who, he says, “should be prosecuted in Israel or Kenya,” because the alleged attacks “neither targeted Americans nor took place on US soil.”

Malik’s lawyers, at Reprieve, disagree with the US government’s suspicions regarding their client’s alleged involvement in the attacks, but it is reasonable to expect that the military and intelligence services will be looking for ways to prosecute at least a handful of the 22 “forever prisoners” who have not, to date, been charged, despite having been held for between 13 and 19 years.

What is crucial for all parties to understand, however, is that, with the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo prison looming, in January 2022, it is no longer acceptable for anyone to continue to be held without being charged, and it is commendable that both Wolosky, and the 24 Senators who recently wrote to Biden urging him to close the prison, recognize that the continued imprisonment of anyone without charge or trial is fundamentally unacceptable.

Wolosky’s call for Guantánamo’s closure ought to carry considerable weight within the administration, precisely because of his former role as the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure under Obama. For better or worse, the Envoy’s role was deeply pragmatic, rather than idealistic. The former prisoners whose release he negotiated were not always well-served by their former captors — as has been made abundantly clear in the transfer of former prisoners to the UAE, who have been subjected to ongoing imprisonment in unacceptable conditions rather than being granted the release that they were promised — but while those mistakes should not be repeated by Biden when it comes to resettling prisoners in third countries (primarily, the Yemenis still held, whose repatriation has long been ruled out across the entire political spectrum in the US, because of security concerns), Wolosky’s experience of what is possible is significant.

Wolosky’s op-ed is cross-posted below, and I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if you find it useful.

Biden Has a Chance to Remedy One of Obama’s Biggest Regrets
By Lee Wolosky, New York Times, April 27, 2021

President Biden’s decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan is a significant step toward extricating the United States not only from its longest war, but also from a massive national security architecture defined by the threat of foreign terrorism.

He should now take the next step and close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Its costs to America — both reputational and financial — are exorbitant, and the facility remains a recruitment tool for extremists and a blot on our national character.

Over the past 20 years, the United States has spent trillions of dollars fighting foreign terrorism and built a formidable counterterrorism apparatus aimed at that threat. I remember returning to government in 2015 as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Guantánamo closure, 14 years after I left the National Security Council’s counterterrorism directorate in the weeks before 9/11. I was shocked by the bureaucracy of thousands of government employees built around Guantánamo, just one small component of the global war on terror. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent annually to maintain the facility a short distance from our shores.

Mr. Biden must also take a close look at the enormous resource commitment that prevented another 9/11-like attack on the United States and reduced the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations. The large, unwieldy federal counterterrorism bureaucracy must be trimmed. Resources and diplomatic expertise should be redirected to counter today’s most pressing geostrategic threats, such as those posed by China. The increasing threat from domestic extremism deserves more attention, as well; it has been far more lethal to Americans in recent years than foreign terrorism.

Guantánamo is a remnant of the era now finally ending. The threats to U.S. security surrounding its creation no longer exist, and the remaining detainee population is increasingly geriatric and unlikely to return to the fight. (The oldest detainee is 73 years old.) The facility is crumbling, necessitating therecent relocation of high-value detainees from one building to another.

Mr. Obama has said that his failure to take decisive action to close the facility at the beginning of his first term was one of his most significant regrets. His administration did come close to doing so, transferring out of U.S. custody virtually all the detainees the U.S. government determined were eligible to leave at that time. Yet efforts to close Guantánamo were hampered by a transfer ban, approved by Congress as part of a defense-spending bill and signed by Mr. Obama despite his misgivings. The law purports to restrict the transfer of the facility’s detainees to the U.S. mainland for any purpose. The legislation is of dubious constitutionality because it infringes on the president’s constitutional powers as commander in chief to make operational decisions concerning wartime prisoners as he sees fit — a point Mr. Obama made.

President Biden must order the remaining detainees out of Guantánamo despite the transfer ban. Forty detainees remain, including 12 who are subject to military commission proceedings or have pleaded guilty. The remaining 28 could be transferred out of U.S. custody, subject to the negotiation of suitable security arrangements with other countries, including possible foreign prosecution.

Six detainees have been approved for transfer and should be released from U.S. custody immediately. For the remainder, it’s hard to remember why some of them ended up in U.S. custody, or why they should remain there. Consider the Kenyan detainee Abdul Malik, suspected of committing two terror attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, killing 13 people. These were horrible acts of terrorism, but ones that neither targeted Americans nor took place on U.S. soil. Nonetheless, he has been held at Guantánamo for 14 years. He should be prosecuted in Israel or Kenya. Other detainees are also subject to the criminal jurisdiction of other countries or could serve U.S. sentences abroad. The United States should not be the world’s jailer of first or last resort.

Those who cannot be transferred out of U.S. custody at this time, including detainees awaiting military commission trials, should be moved to the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., or to military bases in the U.S. or abroad. The federal prison system has an unblemished record in securely incarcerating those suspected and convicted of acts of terrorism, and at far less cost than the over $13 million per detainee per year at Guantánamo. (It costs around $78,000 annually to house an inmate in a supermax.)

The United States is finally leaving Afghanistan. We should also finally close Guantánamo. As with ending the war, that will be possible only with the boldest presidential leadership.

* * * * *

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.

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

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own introduction, of a New York Times op-ed calling for the closure of Guantanamo by Lee Wolosky, who was the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure from 2015-17 under President Obama, and whose words ought to carry weight with the Biden administration.

    Like the 24 Senators who recently wrote to President Biden calling for Guantanamo’s closure, Wolosky recognizes that, nearly 20 years since Guantanamo opened, there can no longer be any pretence that any of the prisoners can continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial. If they cannot be charged and tried, they must be released.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    Seems like the calls are growing. Hope they are heard!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it feels a little bit promising, Susan, after four years of Trump.

  4. Ethan Winters says...

    Congratulations on Saifullah Paracha and Uthman Uthman being approved for transfer.


    I never thought Paracha would be approved for transfer. I’m glad I was proven wrong. I guess his son Uzair being exonerated helped his case. I also know that Haroon al-Afghani is getting another hearing. Maybe the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the HIG no longer fighting the U.S. will help his case.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the news, Ethan. That’s very good to hear. I imagine there will be some more helpful decisions from the PRBs in due course.

  6. Ethan Winters says...

    No problem. Abdul Rabbani was also approved for transfer which is surprising because he didn’t even show up to his hearing.


    His brother Mohammed was granted a full review. Maybe he’ll also be approved for transfer.

  7. Anna says...

    May they be released asap. Why do they expect Mr Paracha to be released ‘in a few months’ time’ and not right away, when Pakistan has asked for his release and repatriation? So no need to find a place for him ! Let’s hope Wolosky’s call will be heeded.

    Your friend Roger Waters just had an impassioned plea for Palestine live on Al Jazeera English.

    If you manage to see it later, the bewildered man in a blue shirt sitting on a hospital bed holding a baby with leg in plaster and badly damaged eye is the husband – or rather the widower – from the recent night strike on a refugee camp in which two women and eight children were killed. His wife and four eldest children were among these victims. All he has left is five month old Omar, with broken leg and damaged eye. One among dozens of such grieving parents …

    And bloody Biden continues blocking UN action, allowing Netanyahu to murder as many Palestinians as he wishes with total impunity, in ‘self defense’. If our world is ever to improve, the first thing that must be done is terminating the ludicrous veto right of the permanent members in the UN Security Council, who keep blocking vital decisions.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I saw that, Ethan. Very interesting, especially, as you say, because he didn’t attend his hearing.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. In Biden’s defence, Congress’s rules regarding the release of prisoners still stand, so the administration has to provide 30 days’ notice to Congress before any prisoner can be released.

    As for what’s happening in Israel and Palestine, it is so very depressing, and so infuriating how no one in a position of power will stand up to Israel, when it is so clearly committing war crimes, including targeting doctors and hospitals, and many other civilian targets, as well as taking out the media and internet service providers, to try to silence any reporting. I was particularly upset to hear about the murder of Dr. Ayman Abu al-Ouf, an extraordinarily well-respected doctor, and, as a Palestinian doctor explained on Democracy Now! yesterday, Israel is also targeting electricity supplies, “the schools, the kindergartens, the factories, the governmental buildings, the banks, the ministry buildings, primary healthcare facilities.”

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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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