The closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility was a key election promise Barack Obama made in his 2008 presidential campaign. As president, he followed it up with a January 2009 executive order calling for the closure of Guantánamo Bay within one year, a moratorium on military tribunals and a review of the detention status of all prisoners. Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo failed spectacularly; nonetheless, he took immediate steps to break with the policies of George W. Bush.
The reverse has been the case under President Donald Trump. There were 41 prisoners at Guantánamo when Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, the same number as today. Of these men, only one — an Afghan national who has been cleared for release — was captured by the US military.
The others were either sold to the US military by the Pakistani and Afghan authorities and warlords, or are victims of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. Particularly in the latter case, the US authorities have an interest in preventing the release of these men so that the conditions of their detention and the truth of the human experimentation they were gratuitously subjected to never comes to light.
Guantánamo was not a priority for any of the candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign. Maintaining that he will keep Guantánamo open, Trump claimed before becoming president that he would “load up Guantanamo with some bad dudes,” along with a tweet in early January stating “there should be no further releases from Gitmo.” Since becoming president, Trump’s main platform for sharing misguided information about Guantánamo prisoners has been Twitter, and he has sometimes used disinformation as a stick with which to beat his predecessor.
In February, The New York Times published what it claims is a draft order on ISIS prisoners and Guantánamo. Allegedly revised since then, the order claims that the US government plans to reinstate prison transfers to Guantánamo, arbitrary detention and extraordinary rendition. The White House denied association with the order when the story first broke in late January.
Indeed, though he uses Guantánamo to boost Islamophobia and fuel belligerent Twitter rhetoric at home and abroad, Trump mainly appears indifferent toward Guantánamo Bay. Over the past 100 days or so, any changes at Guantánamo, such as in leadership, have been merely cosmetic and reflect no change in policy. Both prisoners and military staff, who outnumber prisoners at least 42 to 1, await instructions and an order on what happens next.
In practice, the policies of the Obama administration continue. While Trump has tweeted against prisoner transfers, four periodic review board hearings — which clear prisoners for release — have taken place under his presidency. Although he has said he will not release any of the current prisoners, in February, Algerian officials reported they were in talks with US counterparts concerning the repatriation of one of two remaining Algerian prisoners.
Notwithstanding an executive order, a key test of what Trump plans to do with the remaining prisoners can be seen in the case of convicted Saudi prisoner Ahmed Al-Darbi. In 2014, Al-Darbi pleaded guilty in a plea agreement that will allow him to serve his sentence in Saudi Arabia once he has testified against other prisoners. Sentencing has been delayed as a result, and he is scheduled to testify this summer. The plea deal should see him returned to Saudi Arabia in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether Trump will honor an agreement made under Obama. A sentencing hearing in his case scheduled for May has been canceled only due to a scheduling conflict.
In one of the cases — that of Abd al Hadi al Iraqi, accused of being an al-Qaeda commander, but whose defense lawyers claim is the victim of mistaken identity — Al-Darbi has been called upon to testify to having met him once 20 years ago. No trial date has been set, and current pretrial questions focus on Al-Darbi’s admission of being tortured to confess.
Finding “bad dudes” to load up Guantánamo does not appear to be an easier task. Funds to upgrade and expand Guantánamo are part of the blank check given to military private contractors to expand the US’s escalating war efforts. With the US’s overseas allies also focused on extrajudicial mass executions of suspects and prisoners rather than due process, who these foreign fighters could be is unclear.
Like Obama, Trump has shown a preference for airstrikes and drone warfare over imprisonment. One such strike resulted in the death of a former Guantánamo prisoner in Yemen in March 2017. He was not an intended target.
Closing Guantánamo is never going to be an easy task. Fifteen years on, it remains one of the most potent symbols of the never-ending war and destruction of the 21st century. Bush-era myths and unsubstantiated claims of prisoner recidivism, when over 86 percent of prisoners were bought and not captured, continue to be peddled as though they are fact. Trump’s failure to have yet made key governmental appointments on Guantánamo demonstrates a lack of serious concern.
Trump’s disinterest is unfortunately shared elsewhere. The civil movement to protest the continued existence of Guantánamo has largely closed down, particularly in the US, where the focus has shifted to new challenges. This is a failure to recognize continuity: Trump’s notorious revised travel ban on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries covers all of the nation-states to which Obama banned the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners, with the exception of Iran. Growing concern about immigration policy and private immigration detention facilities ignores the other Guantánamo Bay detention facility: the offshore immigration detention center that has operated since the 1990s.
The plight of Guantánamo prisoners past and present cannot simply be wheeled out every time it is convenient for US foreign and military policy. Disinterest does not make an issue like indefinite detention and torture at Guantánamo disappear, nor does it offer any respite to the prisoners whose lives have been in limbo for more than 15 years.
Following Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo in one year, by mid-2010, the White House conceded that closing the facility was no longer a priority. Campaigns in the mainstream media and by international NGOs dwindled, and no questions were put to the president about the issue. It would take three years and a mass hunger strike by the prisoners themselves in 2013 to put Guantánamo back on the radar. The reverberations of Obama’s brutal response continue with the recent court decision not to disclose videos showing the torture methods used to force-feed prisoners at the time.
The appointment of Gina Haspel — who ran a CIA secret torture prison in Thailand in 2002 as CIA deputy director — does not mean the injustices of the past 15 years have gone unnoticed. The International Criminal Court is currently poised to state whether it will investigate war crimes in Afghanistan to include the US’s use of torture and extraordinary rendition in the country.