Biden administration quietly steps up efforts to shut down Guantanamo

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is revamping its efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, for the first time appointing a senior diplomat to oversee detainee transfers and signaling it will not interfere with plea negotiations that could resolve the stalled prosecution of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants.

After taking a low-key approach to the issue during his first year in office to avoid political controversy, President Biden is one step closer to fulfilling a campaign promise to close the facility, people familiar with the matter said.

The US Navy Base Cuba facility was established in January 2002 to house suspected foreign terrorists captured overseas. Guantanamo has detained nearly 800 men since then; only 36 inmates remain at the facility today, after hundreds were sent home or resettled to third countries by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The new detainee arrived in 2008; some of the men have been detained for two decades.

Nine of the remaining detainees are defendants in the military commission proceedings, including five charged with conspiracy, murder contrary to the laws of war, hijacking or endangering a ship or aircraft, and terrorism in the 9/11 affair.

President Biden, who has so far taken a low-key approach to Guantanamo, spoke at a 9/11 memorial ceremony at the Pentagon this month.


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Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was charged with perfidy, murder in violation of the laws of war, terrorism, conspiracy and endangering a ship by planning attacks on three ships, including the bombing of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole which killed 17 sailors.

Three other detainees were sentenced by military commissions, two of them via plea bargains. One of them, Abd al-Hadi al Iraqi, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and violating the laws of war and is awaiting sentencing. A second, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is serving a life sentence for providing material support for terrorism, solicitation and conspiracy. A third, Majid Khan, reached an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to conspiracy, murder in violation of the laws of war, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war and espionage, and became a cooperator government and served his sentence in March.

Four people are being held indefinitely without charge because authorities consider them a security risk. Twenty other people were cleared for transfer by a review board including defense, intelligence and law enforcement officials, but moving the men proved more difficult than the Biden team expected. , the sources said.

Some critics of the Biden administration’s action on the prison closure, both inside and outside the administration, say new crises have kept national security personnel busy and the potential to be branded soft on terrorism has slowed the administration’s efforts, they say.

The White House is seeking to avoid the kind of backlash that thwarted Mr. Obama’s plans after his high-profile calls to close the prison. Congress responded to the Obama administration’s efforts to close the prison in 2010 by passing a ban on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the United States

“The administration does not want to appear to be soft on terrorism and is waiting for political consensus,” said Harvey Rishikof, a former head of the military commissions apparatus who helped write a recent report on the closure of the University of Pennsylvania facility. Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.

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Mr. Biden’s new special representative post, critics also say, lacks the influence of similar offices under the Obama administration, where Guantanamo envoys had direct access to the secretary of state. The new Special Representative, Tina Kaidanow, a former Goodwill Ambassador for Counterterrorism, has been placed lower in the State Department hierarchy, they say.

A State Department spokesperson said Ms Kaidanow was unavailable for comment.

The Department of Defense is moving forward with a Donald Trump-era project to build a third courtroom at Guantanamo Bay at a cost of $4 million, although no additional trials are expected. planned at the naval base.

A spokesman for the military commissions said “a significant expansion” of Guantanamo’s trial facilities, including a new courtroom, would allow military judges to hold “lengthy concurrent trials of multiple defendants”.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said: “Detaining people without charge or trial for years cannot be reconciled with the values ​​we espouse as a nation.”


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Al Drago/Bloomberg News

Twenty-one years after the September 11, 2001 attacks — and a year after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan — critics are pushing the administration to speed up the closure of the offshore prison.

“Detaining people without charge or trial for years cannot be reconciled with the values ​​we stand for as a nation and has deprived 9/11 victims and their families of any semblance of justice or closure,” the president said. of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick. Durbin (D., Ill.).

Some Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have opposed any action that might lead to detainees leaving Guantanamo. “The Biden administration wants to release more terrorists, and we know with absolute metaphysical certainty that the results will be more Americans murdered,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said in December during a Judiciary Committee hearing. on Guantanamo.

The Penn Research Center released a 197-page report on Monday providing a roadmap for closing the facility, while offering alternative approaches to protect national security. Written by national security experts, including former military prosecutors and Guantanamo defense attorneys, the report recommends abolishing military commissions, created to try enemy prisoners without granting them constitutional rights, and resolving the 10 pending trials by plea bargains that could lead to life imprisonment for some defendants rather than execution.

He advocates a more vigorous campaign to repatriate or resettle detainees abroad and the repeal of congressional restrictions on the transfer of detainees serving sentences at Guantanamo to prisons on US soil.

Settlement in Cuba costs $540 million a year to operate, according to the Penn study, including about $100 million for military commissions. That works out to $15 million per inmate, compared to about $78,000 a year for an inmate at the US Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, where terrorists and other high-security convicts are held.

The Bush administration transferred more than 500 Guantanamo detainees before 2009; the Obama administration transferred nearly 200 more. Only one transfer, which had been negotiated during the Obama era, took place during the Trump administration. Forty detainees remained at Guantanamo when Mr. Biden took office.

Mr. Biden has long called for the facility to be closed, including during his 2020 presidential campaign. Yet Mr. Biden left in place Mr. Trump’s 2018 executive order revoking Mr. Obama to shut down the facility. The White House also did not initially restore the post of Guantanamo envoy. When Mr. Durbin held a Judiciary Committee hearing on Guantanamo in December, the administration refused to send anyone to explain its position.

The 9/11 prosecution has been bogged down for years by the cruel methods used by Central Intelligence Agency interrogators before the defendants were charged. In 2017, Mr. Rishikof, then head of the commissions, began negotiations with 9/11 defendants that could have led to guilty pleas had executions not been considered.

The Trump administration removed Mr. Rishikof from his post for what it said were unrelated reasons. Earlier this year, the Biden administration renewed those negotiations and the White House said it would not interfere.

“Obviously, if it was easy — four presidents, 20 years — we would have figured that out,” Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said at the December hearing.

Write to Jess Bravin at [email protected]

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