WASHINGTON – The Biden administration said on Friday it would consider how best to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center in Cuba, renewing its efforts to keep a promise made more than 12 years ago by President Barack Obama.
Emily J. Horne, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the process would involve “close consultation with Congress” and the involvement of the defense, state and justice departments.
“There will be a robust interagency policy,” said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary.
But the plan so far lacks details. Key players have not been named for this task, and officials have yet to decide who would lead the effort and whether to revive the role of special envoy to the State Department to help relocate prisoners in other countries.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said as part of his confirmation process that the Biden administration “does not intend to bring any new inmates into the facility and will seek to shut it down. “.
But the White House’s disclosure that it would conduct an assessment of the situation, which was previously reported by Reuters, is the first public statement that it would revive the interagency process President Donald J. Trump abandoned when he rescinded Mr. Obama’s executive order. to close the prison.
There are currently 40 prisoners in the detention center, all brought under the George W. Bush administration. The prison is staffed with an undisclosed number of contractors, civilian Pentagon employees, and 1,500 U.S. troops, after an estimated 1,800 troops were withdrawn under the Trump administration to save on costs that in 2019 exceeded $ 13 million per prisoner per year.
The Bush administration, which brought 780 men and boys there, sent about 540 to other countries. The Obama administration has reduced the prison population by 200 more through relocations to other countries. The Trump administration has repatriated a man, an avowed terrorist from Qaeda, to Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Obama’s efforts to close the jail have met with intense opposition on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans who claim that none of the prisoners of war are being transferred to facilities in the United States. The Obama administration had determined that there were a few dozen prisoners that it could not safely release even if other countries were willing to take them.
Congress has responded to Mr. Obama’s efforts by banning the transfer of any detainee from Guantánamo to the United States for any reason – not for trial, imprisonment, or medical treatment. Mr Biden said as a candidate the fence will require congressional cooperation.
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The Department of Justice will play a key role in any assessment of how to proceed now, as a major question will be what to do about the conspiracy prosecution of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other men accused of helping orchestrate the attacks of September 11, 2001..
The coronavirus pandemic has stalled what was already slow progress in the case, and the start of a trial is at least a year away. The Obama administration had sought to hold the trial in New York, but the congressional travel ban blocked it.
A leaked Biden administration transition plan showed the White House had for some time considered an executive order that included the goal of shutting down the detention center. But the administration has apparently abandoned that idea in favor of what Ms Horne called a “National Security Council-led process to assess the current state of affairs the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration.”
Representative Adam Smith, Washington State Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who is a supporter of the shutdown, said in a recent interview that he believes politicians might be more receptive to the idea of moving the last prisoners to the United States. States because Guantánamo “is not a profitable place to detain 40 people”.
Mr Smith also said that, rather than seeking to shut it down by executive order, the administration should “develop the argument and the thesis that this is good policy” in order to change the law. Guantánamo’s closure has become a political flashpoint, with supporters of keeping the prison open accusing supporters of shutting it down of being lenient with terrorism or of being prepared to bring accused terrorists to US soil.
Mr Smith bristled at the suggestion, saying the 40 inmates at Guantánamo are “no more dangerous than the hundreds of terrorists, let alone sociopathic murderers and pedophiles, child killers and all manner of evil that we are safely incarcerating in the United States of America. . “
Of those who remain in Guantánamo today, only one prisoner has been convicted of a felony, a Yemeni who was sentenced to life in prison in 2008 for serving as public relations director and personal secretary to Osama bin Laden. . This conviction, for conspiracy to commit war crimes, is under appeal.
Eleven other prisoners were charged, including six on death row. The chief prosecutor made no effort to indict the remaining 28, instead leaving them in indefinite war detainee status in an ongoing conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Six detainees were approved for safe transfers through various inter-agency reviews.
Three of the released men, an Algerian, a Moroccan and a Tunisian, could return home once a resource person is assigned to the task of negotiating security arrangements at the State Department. But the other three require resettlement in a third country because one is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim, who is stateless and has not cooperated in efforts to find him a place to go, and two are Yemenis who cannot return home because their country is involved in a civil situation. war.