President Obama has been talking about closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since he ran for president in 2008.
Now, eight years later, his administration has put out a plan to make it happen.
The plan is to transfer some of the remaining detainees to other countries and those who can’t be transferred would be moved to a facility in the U.S. And that’s the part of the plan many in Congress are railing against.
It’s not just lawmakers who don’t like the president’s plan. On Friday, a new CNN/ORC poll found that 56 percent of Americans surveyed oppose shutting down the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.
This week on For the Record: closing Gitmo.
Today, we bring you three different views on the U.S. prison: a former detainee, President Obama’s top envoy on this issue and the Marine Corps general who recently retired after overseeing the facility.
Omar Deghayes, Guantanamo detainee (2002-2007)
Lawyer Omar Deghayes is one of hundreds of detainees who’ve been released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay over the years. He was apprehended in Pakistan in 2002.
“It was a mistaken identity,” he says. “They had a photograph of a Chechen rebel, and they thought that was me.”
In a 2013 interview with Weekend Edition, Deghayes described several hunger strikes he participated in while he was detained. [Note: This is his story, and NPR can’t independently verify the details of his account.]
He now says the hunger strikes were a “cry of help to the outside world,” and “the last resort” to get his case heard.
“We want our imprisonment to come to an end; we want proper courts to have our cases listened to in courts so that a final decision is made,” Deghayes says. “And those who’ve committed anything can be convicted and imprisoned, and those who haven’t committed anything should be released.”
That was during the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that time the U.S. government was using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, including sleep deprivation, slapping and nudity.
After the abuses came to light, President Bush signed the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005, which prevents “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of any prisoner of the U.S. government, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Today, there are 91 detainees left in Guantanamo Bay.
John Kelly, Retired Marine Corps General
General Kelly oversaw the prison from 2012 until this past January. He insists that the detainees hold a lot of power because they can provoke their guards without retaliation.
“The facilities they live in today are pretty good,” Kelly says. “Again, I wouldn’t want to be a detainee, but if you got to be a detainee somewhere, Gitmo is the place to be.”
He describes something called splashing. [Warning: This is a graphic description.]
“The detainees frequently will mix up a concoction typically of feces, urine, and for some reason, sperm is a special treat, I guess, from their perspective,” he says. “When the guards will go and either give them their food or open the door to bring them out, they get splashed. They get a face full of feces and urine and all the rest of it. You know, that by law is an assault, nothing we can do to them.
The point is, Kelly says, “We’re the good guys — they’re not.”
“We can quibble over what they were doing on the battlefield when we took them, but every one of them is a bad guy,” he adds.
Lee Wolosky, U.S. Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure
The State Department’s top envoy for closing Gitmo offers a different perspective. He describes what it was like the first time he visited the facility.
“There are images in all of our minds about what Guantanamo was,” Wolosky says. “We have images of men in open cages exposed to the elements in orange jumpsuits.”
But he says that Guantanamo has changed.
“It is a facility that is better, I’m a lawyer by training, better than any certainly any state or local correctional facility or prison that I’ve been to,” he says. “It’s better than many of the federal facilities.”
So why close it?
Wolosky says the people still visualize today’s Guantanamo as the old site.
“As the president has said, it is a recruiting tool,” Wolosky says. “It is because of what the world believes that it is. It doesn’t matter what it actually is in certain respects. We’ve all seen images of hostages in the desert wearing orange jumpsuits as they are executed by Islamic State. This is an image that unfortunately is proving to be indelible and has proven to be a recruiting tool for Islamic State.”
General John Kelly doesn’t buy that argument.
“I have three tours in Iraq, a lot of interaction with detainees, and none of them every said to me, ‘You know the reason I picked up a rifle to kill you people? Is because of Guantanamo bay,’ ” Kelly says.
He doesn’t see a parallel when ISIS beheads people wearing orange jumpsuits.
“I would say that our actions against extremists, bombing them and killing them, would be more of reason to hate us than keeping some of their colleagues in a great detention facility at Guantanamo bay,” he says.
Lee Wolosky says there are 36 detainees who have been approved for transfer and he’s confident he can find countries to take them in by this summer. That leaves 55 detainees. Some of them are still being tried in military commissions, and the remaining detainees are waiting for review boards that will decide if they will be sent home or resettled somewhere else. Any other detainees will need to be kept somewhere and the administration has identified 13 sites on U.S. soil that could house them.
The administration has tried this before. Back in 2009 the plan was to move certain detainees to a prison in Standish, Ill. In the end, the residents there didn’t want that to happen and Congress wouldn’t change the law to allow the detainees to move to the U.S.
So what convinces Wolosky that Congress will change its mind on one of the most contentious issues of our time?
“There been bipartisan consensus at the beginning of this administration to close Guantanamo,” he says. “So if there’s interest in a willingness to close Guantanamo and there is an interest and willingness in not releasing certain detainees who cannot be safely released, then the alternative is to bring that small number of detainees to the United States.”
Wolosky says with confidence that he thinks that’s what will happen by the end of the administration.