Guantanamo Bay Is Not Going To Close

Mostly because of politics, the hopes of some and fears of others will never be realized.


In the wake of the deal that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, many on the right have claimed that the deal the resulted in the release of five prisoners held at Guantanaumo Bay was part of some secret Obama plot to empty the prison at Guantanamo Bay. At the same time, many on the left claimed that the deal proved that Obama has been dragging his feet and on closing the prison since he could obviously use the legal loophole of considering these men as “prisoners of war,” and his inherent power as Commander in Chief, to release more prisoners notwithstanding any complaints from Congress. Max Fisher at Vox does an excellent job of demolishing the conspiracy theories, the legal arguments, and the political realities behind both of these assertions and throws cold water on the idea that this deal will lead to any kind of significant changes regarding the prison at Guantanamo Bay. However, I think Kevin Drum sums up even more succinctly why the prison at Guantanamo Bay will never be closed:

Obama is not going to close Guantanamo. The legal loophole he used in the Bergdahl prisoner exchange—no matter what you think of it—flatly wouldn’t apply to shutting down the entire prison. Plus there’s the fact that Congress would go ballistic if he tried—including plenty of Democrats. Impeachment would go from a fever dream of the tea-party right to a very realistic bipartisan possibility. Finally, there’s frankly never been much evidence that Obama cares all that much. He’d obviously like to shut down Guantanamo, but he just doesn’t feel that strongly about it.

So give it up. Guantanamo will be here through the end of Obama’s presidency, and quite possibly until its last prisoner dies. It’s fanciful to think anything else.

Drum is completely correct.

President Obama campaigned for President promising that he would put the Guantanamo Bay prison on a path toward being shutdown as soon as he became President and, indeed, an Executive Order to that effect was among the first actions he took when he entered office in January 2009. Very quickly, however, he discovered that it wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as that. If Guantanamo Bay is going to be closed, then the central question becomes what is to be done with the prisoners being held there. While there were initially as many as 800 people held at the facility in varying levels of security, at this point we’re down to less than 150 prisoners in the camp, approximately 48 of whom have been deemed too dangerous to ever be released.

If the prison were to be closed, those prisoners would have to be disposed of somehow and, in many cases, that would mean finding some place in the United States where they could be housed. While there have been various suggestions about housing them at one of the Federal SuperMax prisoners, or perhaps constructing a new, standalone facility that would only house people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. As Obama soon discovered, though, Congressman and Senators from across the political aisle objected strenuously to the idea of terrorists being imprisoned in the areas that they represent and, soon, Congress passed legislation designed to prevent the President from making any such prisoner move without Congressional approval. That, essentially, is the reason why Guantanamo Bay remains open five and a half years after President Obama signed his Executive Order, and why it’s likely to stay open for the rest of his Presidency.

Drum is also correct that there’s no reason to believe that this will change any time soon. Politically, the easiest position for any Senator or Congressmantake is one that opposes the idea of moving terrorists into his district or state. The fact that these men would be held in a prison from which they’d be highly unlikely to escape is largely irrelevant as well, since the response will typically be that the site of their imprisonment could potentially become a target for terrorists in the future.  Whether these are reasonable positions or not is mostly irrelevant, because politically a Congressman or Senator who didn’t oppose something like this from happening in the area he or she represents would be taking political risks that politicians are just not likely to take.

According to the ACLU, at least 78 of the people currently held at Guantanamo Bay have already been cleared for release by the government. The reasons that they are still being held range from the inability to find countries willing to take them to the White House simply not wanting to take the political risk of releasing them. ABC News notes that, for the most part, the release of these men is being held up because of the fear of taking the political risk of letting them go forward, and that fear is going to exist as long as the War On Terror does.  Even assuming those people are eventually released, though, that still leaves approximately 70 prisoners, more than half of whom are on a list of people that the government has already said are too dangerous to be released. Given the fact that inertia is the most powerful force in politics, the most likely outcome is that these men will stay right where they are until they day they die, which could be decades from now.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure that there’s a better solution that is realistically achievable.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    Tom Tomorrow has it right.

  2. Mu says:

    I thought the main reason we don’t bring most of the inmates to the mainland is legal issues if they’re held in the US proper? Has that been determined that they could be held indefinitely without charges if they are on US soil?

  3. C. Clavin says:

    A fitting legacy for the likes of Bush and Cheney and Bolton and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Perle and the rest of those idiots that made up the Project for the New American Century.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Idiocy, pure idiocy.

  5. Tim says:

    So, why does this post, just like almost all the others about the issue and the stock footage shown about Guantanamo on TV news still show a 12-year old photo of a temporary holding facility that no longer exists instead of the modern and comfortable (compared to standard American prisons) facility that has been in place for almost a decade? I understand that there are disagreements about whether the facility should exist but using the old photos today is intellectually dishonest if you are doing so intentionally and lazy if you haven’t researched the issue enough to realize the pictures do not reflect the reality of the situation there.

  6. Tyrell says:

    I assume that these prisoners are not US citizens. That would mean that certain rights would not apply. I do feel that any who have been found to be innocent should be released. But those who are guilty should never be released.

  7. Davebo says:
  8. Plainer says:

    Each year, Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act which includes military budgets. In it, it legalized keeping enemy combatants indefinitely including Americans captured overseas against our military. Those captured inside the U.S. for terrorist acts however are afforded due process, except for illegal aliens.

  9. Just Some Guy says:


    So, why does this post, just like almost all the others about the issue and the stock footage shown about Guantanamo on TV news still show a 12-year old photo of a temporary holding facility that no longer exists instead of the modern and comfortable (compared to standard American prisons) facility that has been in place for almost a decade?

    Prison is still prison.

    if I hit you in the head with a hammer not as hard as I could… or as hard as others possibly would… would that be OK with you?

    At some point, we need to start getting beyond this war, and that means negotiating to settle differences and releasing prisoners.

    Either that, or we move to a perminent state of war… and that does not work for me. (I can’t afford that.)

  10. JohnMcC says:

    That phrase “too dangerous to ever be released” as a blanket pulled over 48 Guantanamo prisoners who will serve life without parole gave me a moment’s reflection.

    Wonder how many of that 48 have had anything resembling a trial? And if there are some that have not — then how many of them were tortured by the previous administration making them completely un-triable? (That bleeding-heart business about evidence obtained illegally — damn that liberal Constitution!)

    And it seemed interesting to discover that in the U.S. there are some 49,000 persons serving life-without-parole in state and federal prisons. Yet I sleep well at night.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @Tyrell: Do I understand correctly that you believe the U.S. can (and should) hold foreign citizens for life without a trial? But only if they are guilty? Have you thought this out, my dear friend?

    Do you suppose if we actually hold foreign citizens without trial until they die that perhaps that might seem like a useful policy for other nations of the world to follow? And that perhaps there would be Americans serving those sentences? And that there is this little problem of determining who is guilty if you cannot try them due to previous torture?

    Hum… I suggest for a homework assignment…