America’s “forever prison:” Berkley Center hosts discussion on the politics of Guantánamo Bay

September 18, 2020

Illustration by Deborah Han

“It has become a forever prison, with forever prisoners, in the forever war,” Karen Greenberg said of Guantánamo Bay during a discussion on the politics and morals of the detention center on Sept. 14.

As this fall marks the nineteenth anniversary of the plans for the opening of Guantánamo Bay, the Berkley Center in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting hosted “The Ethics and Politics of Guantánamo Bay,” featuring Carol Rosenburg and John Kirby on Sept. 16. The pair, moderated by Greenberg, discussed issues of transparency, the politics of shutting down the center and trying detainees, and where the issue stands in the minds of the American people. 

“Guantánamo today is among the most isolated it has been,” Rosenberg said. Rosenberg, a New York Times writer and the world’s only full-time Guantánamo Bay reporter, has been covering the detention camp since its inception and was present when the first detainees arrived in 2002. Currently, the detention center holds 40 prisoners, and the navy base is home to 6,000 people, including sailors, employees, and their families. According to Rosenberg, this year was supposed to hold pre-trial testimony of detainees and hearings for 9/11 cases, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, things are at a standstill. 

“I think if there was one way to describe it at this moment, people are watching and waiting for a vaccine, a plan to get down there safely, and the outcome of these elections,” Rosenberg said. 

The politics of Guantánamo Bay, past, present, and future, was a central point of the discussion between Rosenberg and Kirby. “Guantánamo is a political hot potato, whether it deserves to be or not,” Rosenberg remarked. 

Kirby, a military and diplomatic analyst for CNN and retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, served as Pentagon press secretary and then as a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State from 2015 to 2017. He witnessed President Barack Obama’s administration’s failed attempts to close the prison and transport some of the detainees to prisons in the United States. When asked what happened with those attempts Kirby responded, “Congress happened.”

“There was a lot of ‘not in my backyard,’ bipartisan not in my backyard, in Congress, in terms of refusing to even consider the movement of even a small number of these detainees to American soil,” he said. 

Along with attempting to transport some detainees to U.S. soil, the Obama administration pushed for the five men accused of the 9/11 attacks to be tried in New York City. The idea of federal trials for these men was rejected amid negative feedback, Rosenberg said. According to her, while Obama failed at closing the base, President Donald Trump has failed to live up to his campaign promise of filling it up with “bad dudes.”

“No political leader seems to have their exact way with Guantánamo,” Rosenberg said. “Neither President Trump has been able to grow it, and as we know, the Democrats have not been able to close it.”

Both Rosenberg and Kirby noted that the Guantánamo issue has not been at the forefront of the current presidential race. According to Rosenberg,  the Joe Biden campaign has said they’ve learned from the Obama administration, and while they won’t commit to closing the prison, believe it should be closed. “The Biden campaign is really assiduously avoiding talking about, and may not be internally discussing the strategy for accomplishing that,” she said.

The lack of attention from the candidates about the status of Guantánamo Bay is likely because the detention center is not in the minds of the American people. 

“Guantánamo is not front of mind with anyone, it’s not a campaign issue,” Rosenberg said. “You could travel the United States before COVID and tell them I covered Guantánamo Bay and people are perplexed because they think we’ve closed it.”

The lack of transparency at Guantánamo has always been an issue, and something Rosenberg and Kirby have had particular experience with as a journalist and press secretary. According to Rosenberg, it’s partly because of this lack of transparency that Americans have seemingly stopped caring about the detention center.

“Guantánamo feels very far away to the American people,” she said. “People talk about opening the aperture a little, the aperture is closed. The decision to do that predated the campaign season and is a strategy because it’s effective. People don’t remember that Guantánamo’s there.”

According to Kirby, the issue of transparency at Guantánamo grew as the mission on the base became more complicated and received criticism for enhanced interrogation techniques and torture. “As the issues got more complex and more political, more legal, there was very little incentive for the Pentagon to really be more open and more transparent about what they were doing,” he said. 

Now, Kirby thinks that unless there is increased public interest in Guantánamo, there will be no greater transparency. “Unless the American people make this a priority and push for it, I just don’t see it happening,” he said.  

The pair also discussed in depth the transfers and trial process for the detainees, many of whom await trial through military commission, the price tag on the detention center, and whether the site could ever close. With 40 detainees left, and only a small number directly involved with attacks like 9/11, Kirby believes there is room for negotiations for the transfer of some of those men if there’s enough will from the White House and the international goodwill to make it happen. 

During the first term of the Obama administration, there was a Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which was dedicated to transferring detainees off of the base. That office was closed in 2013. “There really isn’t any current institution that’s trying to get even the people who were cleared to go home,” Rosenberg said. “There is no will at the moment.” 

When asked if they believed Guantánamo would ever close, the pair recognized it is hard to see that future. “Sometimes I think this is the first no exit strategy U.S. military enterprise since the Vietnam War,” Rosenberg said. With 1,500 expensive national guard troops on the base, Rosenberg thinks that there may be a future rethinking of where those guards should be and how they should be used. “The conversation may be different, is all I can say. It may not be about domestic politics and who’s more afraid of terror or the cost of holding a trial in the states,” she said. “But it’s hard to see it right now, it’s just hard to see.”

Kirby expressed his belief in Obama’s desire to close the base but noted that even if Biden was elected, he would face obstacles in Congress and in the international community in moving to transfer detainees and close the prison. “I don’t think I ever want to lay my head down on the pillow at night and think to myself Guantánamo’s never gonna close,” he said. 

“I don’t want to believe that it’s never going to end, I just don’t think that’s good for us long term as a country.”

Annabella Hoge
Annabella was a student in the college, class of 2023, who enjoys watching Dodger games, talking about her disco thesis, and drawing angry creatures. She was also the Spring 2023 Editor-in-Chief.

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