Barack Obama campaigned on the promise to close the Pentagon-operated prison at Guantánamo Bay. Donald Trump, on the other hand, campaigned to fill the prison base back up.
From the January day 17 years ago when the first prisoners arrived until today, two things have remained remarkably consistent: The prison at Guantánamo Bay remains open and reporter Carol Rosenberg has been covering it. “If you’re asking how Guantánamo ends,” Rosenberg told Intercepted this week, “I have no idea.”
“If you’re asking how Guantánamo ends, I have no idea.”
Rosenberg was covering Guantánamo since Bill Clinton was in the White House, before Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “unlawful combatants” ever set foot in the camp. And she was there for that too: Rosenberg watched as the first 20 nameless men arrived. “If you close your eyes and imagine a photo of 20 men on their knees in orange jumpsuits with blinders on their face, that’s a picture taken the first day by a Navy combat cameraman of the first 20 men in,” Rosenberg said.
In the 17 long years since the naval base was used to detain prisoners merely suspected of having something to do with anti-American terrorism, 780 men have passed through its walls. Today, 40 men remain. Some of those men — like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — first went through a secret CIA-operated outpost within the military base, known as a black site.
Rosenberg revealed last month that CIA Director Gina Haspel may have had a stint running a CIA outpost at GTMO, which was operated from 2003 to 2004. Rosenberg got the scoop from a recently declassified transcript of a secret court hearing last year, in which KSM’s defense lawyer argued that Haspel’s past involvement at the prison makes a fair trial impossible.
“I look at the words on the page and I’m like, ‘Gina Haspel ran a black site at Guantánamo?’ It’s been widely reported that she certainly ran a black site in Thailand and the Guantánamo episode continues to be really mysterious. And then I begin — I go on a mission to try and figure out the truthfulness of this,” Rosenberg told Intercepted. “Those who know for sure can’t say, but those who know the program have a context where they can talk about it. I’m not saying it’s a fact. I’m saying this piece of information was declassified. The CIA won’t confirm it. They won’t deny it.”
Listen to Carol Rosenberg on Intercepted beginning at 43:00.
Haspel’s alleged involvement at Guantánamo received little attention in the fast-moving, Trump-era news cycle. Yet the history of the American presence at Guantánamo Bay continues to demand attention. Long before the war on terror began, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was occupied by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. leased the land from Cuba and has maintained the military base ever since, paying the annual rent stipulated in the 1903 agreement. Cuba, however, has not cashed those checks for more than 50 years because of its objections to the U.S. base on its soil.
In the early ’90s, political instability — notably involving alleged U.S. meddling — rocked Haiti, causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. The Haitians who tried to reach the United States by boat were interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard and imprisoned by the Clinton administration in temporary camps at the base. In total, over 40,000 men, women, and children were interned in abysmal and inhumane conditions, unprotected by U.S. constitutional law.
Because of U.S. immigration policy at the time, HIV-positive Haitians couldn’t seek asylum and remained indefinitely at the camp. In 1993, ordering the release of the HIV-positive refugees, a federal judge said their plight was “the kind of indefinite detention usually reserved for spies and murderers.”
Fast-forward to the early days of the invasion of Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks. Rumsfeld decided that Guantánamo was the best place to house the “unlawful combatants” without affording them the protections of the Geneva Conventions, calling the base “the least worst place we could have selected.”
Speaking to reporters in early 2002 at Camp X-Ray, the name of the detention facility at Guantánamo, Rumsfeld clarified the administration’s position on the legal status of detainees of the war. “There is a reasonable understanding of what an unlawful combatant is. And the characteristics of the individuals who have been captured are that they are unlawful combatants, not lawful combatants. That is why they’re characterized as ‘detainees’ and not ‘prisoners of war,’” Rumsfeld said. “And it’s important for people to recognize this is a different circumstance; the war on terrorism, it requires a different template.” This “different template” would set in motion over a decade of inhumane treatment, torture, and blowback.
The torture of prisoners under the Bush administration at various black sites around the globe sets the stage for Obama to campaign on a pledge to shut down the prison at Guantánamo. In 2007 at a CNN debate, Obama, then a senator, said, “Our legitimacy is reduced when we’ve got a Guantánamo that is open, when we suspend habeas corpus — those kind of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles.”
One of Obama’s first uses of his presidential powers was to sign an executive order to shut down the detention facility. The next eight years would prove that closing it would be more complicated and slow-moving than anyone imagined — with virtually no place for the detainees to go. “Because Congress has said that you can’t move them to the United States and forbidden anyone who’s held as a detainee at Guantánamo to be transferred to the United States for any reason — for trial, for detention, for medical care — the reality is it sounds very much like it’ll exist until the last detainee dies and they can shut it down.” Rosenberg said. “Many of these men aren’t chargeable. They’re not accused of being criminals. They’re accused of being foot soldiers for an enemy force which currently has no leader to surrender.”
By the end of Obama’s second term, 197 detainees had been transferred to another country, repatriated, or otherwise released, and 41 men remained. Today, under the Trump administration, more than half of the 40 men who remain at Guantánamo are still being held indefinitely without a charge or a trial.
A new documentary from Field of Vision and the Guardian, “The Trial: Inside Guantánamo With 9/11 Suspect Ammar al-Baluchi,” explores the grueling and complicated legal defense work of preparing for the 9/11 trial. Defense lawyer Alka Pradhan describes the upcoming event as “the biggest criminal trial in U.S. history.” She says, “It is so frustrating to me how few people are watching what’s happening down here.”
Yet, as this profound trial rehashes a dark chapter — the lack of accountability for torture, the events of 9/11, the indefinite detention — the American political reckoning with torture ended when Haspel was confirmed. Despite being herself involved in the worst moments of this very history, Haspel is now head of the CIA. She was chief of base at the CIA’s secret prison in Thailand, where she oversaw torture of at least one detainee, and later as a senior official at the CIA headquarters, she oversaw the destruction of videotaped evidence of the torture of another. Nonetheless, she was confirmed, garnering bipartisan support by making a simple promise that the CIA wouldn’t do it again.
There has been little mention of the forever prisoners in the early stages of the 2020 presidential race, though it has become an issue in past election cycles, with candidates in 2008 and 2016 debating the prison’s future. It became clear in 2016, with the prison still open, that the responsibility for what to do about it would fall on the new president’s plate. “We look like hypocrites and fools to the entire world,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told CNN during a 2016 town hall. “I think we should shut down Guantánamo. I think, in the long run, it will help us significantly.”
Sanders, a longtime independent progressive running again for president on the Democratic ticket, has long supported the idea of closing the prison and is easily the most outspoken in his field of fellow presidential hopefuls. His position dates back to the early days of the Obama presidency. “I agree with President Obama that Guantánamo must be shut down,” he said in 2009. “I want it shut down as soon as possible. I want to make sure that torture is never again part of America’s interrogation practices, and that all detainees are treated under the rules of the Geneva Conventions.”
Sanders, however, has a strange voting record on the detention facility. He voted in 2009 to block funding for Obama to close the facility, breaking with fellow Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy in opposing that measure.
In 2013, Sanders, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another 2020 Democratic hopeful, voted against a bipartisan amendment that would have made the transfer of Guantánamo prisoners to the United States easier. 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., voted in favor of the amendment. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has remained surprisingly quiet on the subject.
Rosenberg seems defeated. “What is Guantánamo today?” she told Intercepted. “Guantánamo today is 40 detainees, one of them convicted, and a revolving force of about 1,400 U.S. troops, mostly National Guard, coming down there without family, on nine-month tours, going to the beaches and bars of the base on weekends, and then going home, and going back to their lives. And it’s a temporary prison, which really has no capacity to be shut down.”
For her part, Rosenberg, who has reported for the Miami Herald on every aspect of life at the prison for the last 17 years, will be joining the New York Times to continue reporting on this vital story. “The United States did this,” she said. “The United States owns this. Readers should be able to know what’s going on down there. It’s the right thing to do. And so, if I don’t do it, somebody should do it, right?”