Opinion | What I Learned When I Tried to Close Guantanamo


I had come to study (because the president had already to his nice dismay) that the authorized and coverage morass that had developed round Guantanamo meant it couldn’t merely be “closed.” A process that many noticed as a matter of decisively turning the web page on a darkish chapter in American historical past turned out to be a lot messier, extra tedious and extra legally and politically fraught than I anticipated. It was a tough sufficient diplomatic problem to persuade international companions to agree to soak up former Guantanamo detainees. At house, the hyper-polarized political surroundings and myriad authorized obstacles made the method even more durable. The detention facility and surrounding authorized infrastructure had been thrown collectively swiftly within the shadow of a horrific nationwide trauma, with little consideration to future authorized repercussions, together with the probability of profitable felony convictions. Largely, the Guantanamo mess is self-inflicted — a results of our personal choices to interact in torture, maintain detainees indefinitely with out cost, arrange dysfunctional navy commissions and try to keep away from oversight by the federal courts.

Now we stand 20 years from the opening of Guantanamo on Jan. 11, 2002. The US has left Afghanistan, and the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 assaults has come and gone. The alleged perpetrators nonetheless haven’t been tried, and quite a few different males stay held in indefinite detention with out cost. President Joe Biden is finishing his first yr in workplace. My State Division workplace stays empty. Our longest conflict has ended, but Guantanamo endures.

The challenges offered by closing Guantanamo haven’t modified — however practically all the pieces else has. The world has moved on from the 9/11 period; much more than throughout the Obama years, Guantanamo feels right this moment like a relic of one other time. Biden, who will probably be remembered because the president who ended a conflict that three of his predecessors may or wouldn’t, ought to recommit to closing the ability for good. This will require bolder options than his predecessor and a few imperfect compromises — together with lastly abandoning the experiment with navy trials — in addition to the identical resolve and management Biden demonstrated in extricating america from Afghanistan. The time has come to end the yearslong strategy of restoring U.S. ethical credibility by untangling the knots that we ourselves tied in Guantanamo.

By the point I took the job in July 2015, we knew it might be onerous for Obama to fulfill his marketing campaign promise of closing the infamous detention facility in Cuba. A principal purpose was a legislation handed by Congress throughout his first time period that purported to stop the president (in my view, probably unconstitutionally) from transferring any Guantanamo detainees to america for any goal. Earlier than that, it was taken as a on condition that though we’d resettle as many prisoners as attainable overseas, a handful of these awaiting navy fee trials — such because the 9/11 and USS Cole co-conspirators — would have to stay in U.S. custody, ideally at a safe location apart from Guantanamo.

However Congress’ switch ban successfully trapped these detainees in Cuba, stopping Obama from closing Guantanamo (with out taking unilateral motion for which some believed he lacked the authorized authority). So we centered intensely and unremittingly on getting as many individuals as we may out earlier than the top of Obama’s presidency, even when the ability itself wouldn’t be closed at the moment.

For a detainee to have the option to go away Guantanamo, step one was a cautious whole-of-government evaluate to decide whether or not that particular person’s continued detention was needed to counter an ongoing, vital menace to america. If all six businesses and departments concerned within the evaluate unanimously concluded that it was not, the detainee turned “accredited for switch.” Then, it was my job to negotiate his repatriation to his nation of origin or resettlement to a 3rd nation, together with safety preparations and diplomatic assurances meant to maximize the possibilities for profitable reintegration to life exterior Guantanamo.

The negotiations had been troublesome, however I welcomed the duty as a result of, in contrast to in different areas of diplomacy, success or failure could possibly be simply and quantifiably measured. Given the best way my place was arrange, I was in a position to wield the appreciable, full leverage of U.S. diplomacy and discover hidden alternatives. International locations agreed to take detainees for a lot of causes. Some international leaders thought the ability was an abomination and easily needed to assist us shut it. Some companions had been reluctant to even entertain the notion regardless of having benefited disproportionately from the large funding of American blood and treasure since 9/11 to hold us — and them — secure. I informed them, generally repeatedly, that we had been all obligated to assist the place we may, together with with winding down Guantanamo.

Others needed completely unrelated concessions in alternate for a dedication to resettle detainees. Early in my tenure, I went to breakfast with a international ambassador I had recognized for a while. He opened the meal by graciously providing on behalf of his nation to take up to 20 Guantanamo prisoners. I was ecstatic. By the point the meal was executed, it was clear that the provide was contingent on the sale of extremely superior navy {hardware}. No deal.

Some leaders preferred Obama personally and agreed to take detainees as an act of private goodwill. I caught a aircraft to one nation after receiving an e mail from the nationwide safety adviser, who had briefly mentioned resettling detainees with that nation’s president on the margins of a convention. As this president walked me into his places of work, he stated: “So that is necessary to President Obama?” When I confirmed that it was, he stated: “If it will be important to President Obama, it will be important to me. We are going to do it.” The remainder of the assembly consisted of pleasantries. Best deal I ever did.

By the top of Obama’s time in workplace, we had largely succeeded in conducting our revised mission. Nearly 800 people had handed by Guantanamo because it opened in 2002, and 116 had been detained there when I took workplace in 2015. However as I drove throughout the George Washington Bridge on Inauguration Day, solely 41 remained. For a number of of these, we had negotiated switch offers that we ran out of time to implement. The rest included hardened terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had been (and stays) caught up in yearslong navy fee proceedings, hampered by, amongst different issues, the dearth of established authorized procedures that has plagued their instances from the beginning.

I was not optimistic that there can be a lot, if any, progress within the years forward, however was pleased with the onerous work we had executed to launch detainees who had by no means been charged with against the law and didn’t pose a menace to our safety. Because the curtain closed on the Obama administration, we had made progress in decreasing the injustice of indefinite detention with out cost. However the stain on america represented by Guantanamo remained.

I thought little of Guantanamo within the years that adopted, partly due to the calls for of my authorized observe and partly due to the deep freeze that fell over the problem throughout the Trump presidency. Trump didn’t find yourself loading up Guantanamo with “dangerous dudes,” and by no means acted on his reported impulse to send Americans infected with Covid there. Solely a single detainee left the jail (below an settlement negotiated throughout the Obama administration) and not one of the remaining ones turned eligible for switch.

But the prices of sustaining the ability continued to develop. By the point Trump took workplace, america was spending tons of of thousands and thousands of {dollars} per yr to function the ability, or roughly $13 million per detainee per yr. (Evaluate that with the annual value of $78,000 for sustaining a prisoner within the federal Bureau of Prisons, which homes scores of convicted terrorists with no reported safety incidents). The power itself — meant to be short-term when arrange in 2002 — was additionally bodily deteriorating.

Then there have been the reputational and nationwide safety prices. It was no coincidence that when ISIS executed Western hostages, it dressed them in orange jumpsuits evocative of these worn by early Guantanamo detainees. The power and the imagery related to it incite hatred in opposition to america and function a recruitment instrument for terrorists. That’s why leaders of each events — together with George W. Bush, John McCain, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — got here to assist its closure, and tons of of detainees left Guantanamo throughout Bush’s presidency after he partially reversed course on the matter.

Trump, after all, didn’t care about any of that. Holding individuals at Guantanamo was constant along with his want to get robust on dangerous guys — even when a few of the dangerous guys had been sick, principally as outdated as he was and unable to be charged with crimes. To be honest, Trump was leveraging the deep politicization of Guantanamo that had taken maintain lengthy earlier than he turned president. From what had as soon as been a largely bipartisan goal to shut down the ability, Guantanamo turned a political soccer, with Republicans intent on irritating Obama’s presidency wherever they might.

Some Republican members of Congress admitted in non-public that the ability needs to be closed, at the same time as they ranted in public about “releasing terrorists.” The jail endures as a product not simply of America’s errors within the combat in opposition to terrorism but in addition of the poisonous model of politics that started throughout the Obama period and have solely worsened since.

I started to suppose once more about Guantanamo once more in early 2021. We had a brand new commander-in-chief — one who, as vp, had been totally dedicated to Obama’s closure coverage. Within the 4 years since Biden had final held workplace, the world appeared to have moved on much more definitively from the period of the conflict on terror — a sentiment punctuated by Biden’s resolution to full the withdrawal from Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The president was dedicated to reorienting the nation towards countering present and future threats, together with China.

And but right here we stand on the opposite facet of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Guantanamo persists as an anachronistic relic of the prior period. The U.S. nationwide safety institution has a method of working on inertia for years or a long time. Within the months main up to 9/11, when I served on the Nationwide Safety Council’s counterterrorism directorate, I was stunned to see what number of authorities sources had been nonetheless oriented towards the defunct Soviet menace. You possibly can depend on two arms the variety of NSC workers who knew something substantive about al Qaeda — but sitting at our desks, I and plenty of others would study nearly immediately of minor seismic disturbances in Siberia.

Guantanamo stays open by advantage of that very same inertia. And it’s previous time to retire this relic of the without end wars. To be clear, I have at all times believed america was proper to detain presumed enemy combatants within the early 2000s and to take essentially the most aggressive steps to observe down and seize those that attacked us on 9/11. However that was a long time in the past. The menace surroundings has basically shifted. Al Qaeda is usually dismantled — at the very least, the centralized command and management construction in Afghanistan that attacked us in 2001 is gone. Home terrorist teams have grow to be a extra urgent menace than international ones. And the first adversaries we now face are nation-states, not the non-state actors we feared within the wake of 9/11.

The detainees themselves are additionally relics of one other time and place. The oldest turns 75 this yr. Many stand to die in Guantanamo. What’s extra, it’s typically forgotten that solely a handful of those people are accused of direct complicity in assaults that focused Individuals. Many others dedicated crimes that may be, and way back ought to have been, prosecuted in locations like Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Malaysia or Kenya.

If these detainees had been white and never brown or Black, is there any life like likelihood america — a rustic dedicated to the rule of legislation — would imprison them with out cost for many years? I don’t suppose so.

As well as to all of the outdated causes for closing Guantanamo, Biden’s dedication that america set a democratic, rules-based instance for the world — with human rights as a centerpiece of U.S. international coverage — gives new impetus. Shuttering the jail will assist restore American credibility within the battle in opposition to authoritarianism, which Biden has appropriately recognized as a principal problem to democratic governance and U.S. world management.

Biden ought to end the job Obama began, together with, if needed, by extra aggressive steps than Obama took. Particularly, he ought to search for methods to finish the stalled experiment with attempting detainees by navy commissions. He ought to take into account relying extra closely on facilitating international prosecutions for robust instances and in the end releasing detainees who can’t be charged with against the law on this or one other nation. And to the extent needed, Biden ought to look to inherent presidential powers below Article II of the Structure to lastly shutter Guantanamo.

The Biden administration (by which I just lately served, however on points unrelated to Guantanamo) has made some halting progress. In July, the administration repatriated Moroccan nationwide Abdul Latif Nasser, who had spent 19 years at Guantanamo without charge. Nasser was one of many prisoners for whom we negotiated switch offers in 2016, however which we couldn’t implement earlier than the top of Obama’s time period.

Of the 39 detainees now remaining at Guantanamo, a complete of 13 are cleared to go away. Fourteen are being held with out cost — the so-called without end prisoners. The remaining 12 have been charged however are topic to interminable navy fee proceedings — all of that are weighed down by the prisoners’ allegations that they had been tortured in U.S. custody.

These cleared to go away needs to be transferred as quickly as attainable by diplomacy led by a senior official with a transparent mandate to get the job executed. For individuals who haven’t been charged by navy commissions (and even maybe for some who’ve), a sustained effort will probably be needed to decide whether or not it will likely be attainable to construct authorized instances that may be prosecuted in international courts in nations like Israel, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. For each classes of detainee, the method might be sluggish and infrequently irritating, however with devoted workers and high-level consideration, it may be executed earlier than Biden leaves workplace.

If Biden succeeds at getting these 27 prisoners out of U.S. custody, the dozen remaining instances would be the hardest. These embody Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the opposite 9/11 co-conspirators, and people suspected of attacking the united statesCole off the coast of Yemen in 2000. They signify the robust core of the Guantanamo downside, instances acquainted to many Individuals and whose decision stays politically fraught. For years, america has tried and failed to use navy trials to impose dying sentences on these terrorists. It’s more and more clear that can by no means occur.

The case of Majid Khan illustrates why the instances in opposition to the 9/11 co-conspirators are going nowhere. Khan pled responsible to a variety of costs a decade in the past and has been a longtime cooperator with U.S. authorities. This previous October, he informed the world at his sentencing listening to that the Individuals had tortured him — a difficulty that infects each navy fee case. A jury comprised of senior navy officers known as Khan’s remedy “a stain on the moral fiber of America” and really useful he obtain clemency consequently.

Khan’s case compelled america to confront what it had lengthy sought to keep away from: the opportunity of a public reckoning with torture and mistreatment of detainees by the hands of U.S. personnel. As an alternative of confronting this difficulty by an in-court examination of the mistreatment Khan alleges he endured in U.S. custody (full with witnesses testifying below oath about barbaric remedy unbecoming of america), the federal government renegotiated Khan’s plea settlement. Consequently, Khan ought to go away Guantanamo as quickly as this yr when his sentence concludes. The trail is now clear for different detainees charged within the navy commissions (together with in capital instances, which Khan’s was not) to search related redress for the remedy they, too, endured.

Which means that after nearly 20 years, it’s nearly sure that america won’t ever have the option to extract the punishment it seeks within the 9/11 instances. That we can’t even carry the conspirators to trial is a nationwide embarrassment. However due to our authorities’s personal misconduct, we should always surrender the phantasm that we’ll ever have the option to put them to dying.

The Biden administration ought to as a substitute pursue the one logical method out of this mess: Search plea agreements that can guarantee life imprisonment for the 9/11 and USS Cole conspirators. Hanging any type of offers with these accused of horrific acts of terrorism has been and can stay unpopular. However it’ll resolve a significant a part of the unfinished enterprise at Guantanamo, since life sentences might be served in different amenities. Any such plea agreements needs to be coordinated with the households of the 9/11 victims, and the defendants needs to be required to cooperate with these households, who’re nonetheless pursing civil litigation in opposition to those that allegedly facilitated the assaults.

Plea offers for the 9/11 conspirators will probably be politically controversial. However having Guantanamo enter a 3rd decade of operations needs to be morally unacceptable. To shut the ability, Biden ought to exhibit the identical give attention to Guantanamo that Obama did, however with even higher creativity for the hardest instances. In doing so, he can shut one other chapter within the conflict on terror and transfer our nation nearer to the conclusion of its democratic aspirations — below the glare of a world watching to see whether or not the rule of legislation will endure in America.