President Joe Biden’s aides have launched a formal review of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, reviving the Obama-era goal of closing the controversial facility with the aim of doing so before he leaves office, the White House said on February 12. Aides involved in internal discussions are considering an executive action to be signed by President Biden in coming weeks or months, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters, signaling a new effort to remove what human rights advocates have called a stain on America’s global image. Asked whether President Biden would shut the high-security prison located at the Guantanamo Naval Station by the time his presidency ends, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: “That certainly is our goal and our intention.” But such an initiative is unlikely to bring down the curtain anytime soon on the offshore facility, due largely to the steep political and legal obstacles that also frustrated efforts by his ex-boss, former President Barack Obama, to close it.
Set up to house foreign suspects following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the prison came to symbolize the excesses of the US “war on terror” because of harsh interrogation methods that critics say amounted to torture. “We are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantanamo,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told Reuters, which was the first to report that the review was underway. “The NSC will work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice to make progress toward closing the GTMO facility, and also in close consultation with Congress,” she added.
The immediate impact of a new approach could be to reinstate, in some form, former President Barack Obama’s Guantanamo closure policy, which was reversed by former President Donald Trump as soon as he took office in 2017. Trump kept the prison open during his four years in the White House. Now, 40 prisoners remain, most held for nearly two decades without being charged or tried. President Joe Biden’s campaign said during the 2020 race that he continued to support closing the detention center but did not say how he would do it. It is also unclear how specific Biden’s coming executive action might be about his plans for the prison, which holds suspects in the 9/11 attacks among its detainee population. “This is an encouraging and much welcome development,” said Scott Roehm, Washington director of advocacy group The Center for Victims of Torture. “The process needs to move quickly.”
Opened under former President George W. Bush in 2002, Guantanamo Bay’s population grew to a peak of about 800 inmates in 2006 before it started to shrink. Former President Barack Obama whittled down the number further, but his effort to close the prison was mainly stymied by Republican opposition in Congress. The federal government is still barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the US mainland. Even with his own Democratic party now controlling Congress, their majorities are so slim that President Joe Biden would face a tough challenge securing legislative changes because some vulnerable Democratic Senators might also oppose them.