The Biden administration has launched a formal review of the future of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, reviving the Obama-era goal of closing the notorious facility, a White House official said on Friday.
Aides involved in internal discussions are considering an executive action to be signed by President Joe Biden in coming weeks or months, two people familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency, signalling a new effort to remove what human rights advocates have called a stain on America’s global image.
Such an initiative, however, is unlikely to bring down the curtain anytime soon on the high-security prison located at the Guantanamo Naval Station, due largely to the steep political and legal obstacles that the new administration will face.
Set up to hold suspects following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the offshore jail came to symbolise 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.
“The NSC will work closely with the departments of defence, 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, the Guantanamo closure policy of Biden’s old boss, former President Barack Obama, which was reversed by Donald Trump as soon as he took office in 2017.
Trump kept the prison open during his four years in the White House – though he never loaded it up with “bad dudes,” as he once vowed. Now, 40 prisoners remain, most held for nearly two decades without being charged or tried.
The Biden administration has not made Guantanamo one of its top early priorities as it grapples with the pandemic and its economic fallout at home and other global challenges. In contrast, Obama made the closing of Guantanamo one of his first executive orders in 2009 but failed to achieve that goal by the end of his second term.
Shutting the facility has been a longtime demand of progressive Democrats, whose support helped Biden win the White House in November.
The prison’s continued existence, critics say, is a reminder to the world of harsh detention practices that opened the United States to accusations of torture. It is also a stark example of how racist-fuelled suspicion of Black and brown men is causing the disproportionate monitoring and suspicion of acts of terrorism.
More than a hundred human rights organisations signed a February 2 letter to Biden calling on him to close the prison and end the indefinite detention of suspects held there, saying it was long past time for “a meaningful reckoning with the full scope of damage that the post-9/11 approach has caused”.
“Guantanamo continues to cause escalating and profound damage to the men who still languish there, and the approach it exemplifies continues to fuel and justify bigotry, stereotyping and stigma,” according to the letter. “Guantanamo entrenches racial divisions and racism more broadly, and risks facilitating additional rights violations.”