Yes, he can close Guantanamo Bay – but Obama wasted the best chance to do it years ago

Obama has a two-week window in the first half of January when he's still president but the new Congress will have convened. He must take it if this blot on the US reputation is to end

Rupert Cornwell
in Washington DC
Wednesday 17 August 2016 18:49
Military Police guard Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison
Military Police guard Taliban and al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison

In six months, Guantanamo Bay could be history. It depends on the 2016 election results, and a rediscovered sense of fiscal sanity on the part of Congress. Above all, however it depends on the political determination of Barack Obama in this twilight of his presidency.

This week’s handover of 15 prisoners to the United Arab Emirates is the biggest single transfer of his administration. The number of prisoners remaining in “Gitmo” has fallen to 61, the smallest since the prison for suspected terrorists at the US base in Cuba opened for business in 2002. A further 20 have long been approved for transfer, and will probably be gone by the time Obama leaves office on January 20.

Which leaves a hard core of around 40: seven charged in connection with specific terrorist attacks on US targets – most notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a prime architect of the 9/11 attacks. The rest are deemed too dangerous to release but cannot be tried in a court of law, military tribunal or otherwise, because the evidence against them is tainted, either obtained under torture or provided by secret informants.

One way or another, these 40 will remain in US custody. The question is where: left to rot at the extraterritorial prison which has become a gigantic moral blot on America’s global reputation? Or at a “supermax” security prison on the US mainland?

The one at Florence, Colorado – capacity 490, current occupants 408 – comes to mind. The so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies” already houses an array of top-tier foreign and domestic terrorists, and is probably even more escape-proof than Guantanamo. What’s safe enough to hold them should be safe enough to house the ageing truly bad guys of Gitmo.

Hindsight of course is 20/20, but Obama should have ordered the prison shut as soon as he took office. He inherited only 242 prisoners, down from a peak of 684 in 2003. By the end of his term, even President George W Bush, belatedly aware of the damage it was doing to America’s standing in the world and its role as a recruiting agent for terrorists, wanted nothing more than to close the place.

Obama felt exactly the same, and unlike Bush, he had a ton of political capital, and a Democrat-controlled Congress to boot. He surely could have secured a deal then, whereby some would face trial in federal courts (which have competently and uneventfully handled the likes of Zakarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker” of 9/11 and the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, both now residents at the supermax), while a hard core would be sent to Florence.

The rest could have been scattered across ordinary federal prisons pending transfer abroad or even – in the case of a handful of Chinese Uighurs caught up in the post-2001, but who were transparently not anti-American terrorists – resettlement in the US.

Easier said than done, of course, given that Guantanamo Bay is not a purely Republican obsession. A fair number of Democrats, too, have always wanted to preserve the prison.

The main reason though was that Obama, with bigger fish to fry such as healthcare reform, new Wall Street regulations and the 2009 stimulus plan, didn’t insist. In 2010 Republicans recaptured the House; his chance was gone.

Now he’s got another one. Donald Trump wants to keep the prison open, and make it even more unpleasant than it is now. But the overwhelming likelihood is that Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of closure, wins the presidency and Democrats recapture at least the Senate and conceivably the House in November. There’s a two-week window in the first half of January when Obama is still president but the new Congress has convened, and when legislation shutting down Guantanamo and authorising the transfer of the remaining prisoners to the US mainland could be passed.

Moazzam Begg on his arrest, life inside Guantanamo and how it can be closed

A decisive factor ought to be the sheer waste of money. Guantanamo costs $445m a year, which in 2017 would work out at a ludicrous $10m per inmate, a figure to make any Republican budget hawk blanche. And all this for 40 bad guys, for whom more than enough solitary cells are available in Colorado?

In the end it’s up to Obama. He’s got to produce actions to match his lofty words. He’s got to convince the doubters in his own party. He must face down the Pentagon, which runs Guantanamo and has a vested bureaucratic interest in keeping it open. He’s got to convince a public on edge at terror that a prison holding terrorist suspects no longer has a purpose. But remember that 2008 campaign slogan, Yes We Can.

Obama can close Guantanamo. He wants to close it. And finally, the odds are he will close it.

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