The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (GITMO), located in the Oriente Province in southern Cuba, is the oldest standing U.S. military installation outside of its territory. The 45-square mile area first came under U.S. control in 1898, towards the tail end of the Spanish-American War.
Recognizing the strategic advantage that Guantanamo Bay offers, the United States signed a 99-year lease with the newly independent Cuban government as a condition for the withdrawal of American forces from the mainland. A then princely sum of 2,000 gold coins, equivalent to a little over four thousand dollars today, was the agreed annual rent. Article VI and VII of the agreement, the Platt Amendment, stipulates that,
VI. That the Isle of Pines shall be omitted from the proposed constitutional boundaries of Cuba, the title thereto being left to future adjustment by treaty.
VII. That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.
In 1934, the Treaty of Relations was signed between the two governments to replace the Platt Amendment. The new treaty saw significantly reduced extra-constitutional American control over the Cuban government, but in return, they were granted the use of Guantanamo Bay for perpetuity.
Excerpts from Article III of the Treaty of Relations
“… So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantanamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territorial area that it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty...”
In the aftermath of the Fidel Castro-led Revolution of 1959, the Cuban government attempted to rescind the treaty, but the United States contends that Cuba had no legal basis for such a move. When the two countries formally broke off diplomatic ties on January 4, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower issued the following statement,
“The termination of our diplomatic and consular relations with Cuba has no effect on the status of our Naval Station at Guantanamo. The treaty rights under which we maintain the Naval Station may not be abrogated without the consent of the United States.”
The decision proved to be a correct one at the time, as Guantanamo Bay proved to be an invaluable strategic asset during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In the words of Rear Admiral M.E. Murphy of the U.S. Navy (January 5, 1953),
“Guantanamo Bay affords a valuable operating area for the Construction Battalions of the Atlantic Fleet to a degree rivaled by no other naval installation in the world. Here, except for an occasional hurricane and a short season of rain, ideal weather permits a well-planned operating period - usually about six months in length - virtually uninterrupted.”
The United States continues to make their annual rent payment to Cuba to this day. A popular urban myth tells the story of how Cuban President, Fidel Castro, refuses to cash American rent checks for the last five decades as a matter of principle. In reality, Castro never had the chance to make such a symbolic statement as the United States Treasury has been making the rent payment to an account in the name of the Cuban people, inaccessible to the current Castro administration. The 2001 conversion of the naval base into a detention facility has led Cuba to charge the United States of breaking the terms of their lease. During a United Nations assembly on June 14, 2002, Cuba demanded that the United States return the territory to their control.
The 9/11 al-Qaeda organized jetliner attacks on the World Trade Center that claimed almost 3,000 American lives precipitated the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In the subsequent War On Terror, the Bush administration believed that the United States was handicapping itself as terrorist groups do not follow the norms of conventional warfare.
As such, the only way to level the playing field was to play the game on their terms. The immediate incarceration of these terrorists and the intelligence gathered would justify the extreme measures taken. Furthermore, the expected detainees were deemed to be the “the worst of a very bad lot” and considered by some as among the most dangerous terrorists in the world. In the words of General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, these terrorists would “chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 down” - such were their threat.
The Guantanamo Bay detention facility, located outside of the United States territory, ensures captured terrorists receive neither the legal protection nor take advantage of the time-consuming process of the American criminal-justice system. It also protects members of the American armed forces from charges of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice (Title 10, U.S. Code Chapter 47). The United States, in addition, did not recognize the captured terrorists as enemy combatants, and in doing so, deny them the rights accorded for prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. The Bush administration claimed that these decisions were made with the safety of American citizens in mind.
The conversion of the GITMO into a detention facility was completed on October 7, 2001, and operational command fell under the Southern Command Joint Task Force Guantanamo. The first batch of detainees, twenty of them, arrived on January 11, 2002. The total number of detainees incarcerated during its decade-long existence remains unclear, but WikiLeaks documents released in 2008 suggest there have been at least 780 prisoners.
Owing to ongoing operations, actual counter terrorism success using intelligence obtained from GITMO prisoners remains a closely held secret. Nevertheless, supporters of GITMO assert that it is a crucial tool in the ongoing War On Terror (or Overseas Contingency Operation). Former Vice President Dick Cheney recently claimed that the death of Osama Bin Laden should be credited to intelligence obtained from Guantanamo.
Some have pointed out the high rate of recidivism among released detainees as another reason for the facility, citing Abdullah Mehsud as a prime example. Mehsud was the purported mastermind of a 2007 bomb blast in Pakistan that took 31 lives - four years after his release from the GITMO facility.
Critics, however, charge that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has done irreparable harm to America’s international standing and moral authority in the eyes of the world, and in the process, damaged the country’s leadership in human rights causes and heightened anti-American sentiments, especially among Islamic countries.
It began in the wake of the controversial 2004 case of Rasul vs. Bush (542 U.S. 466). The Supreme Court judged in favor of the petitioners, who had alleged that they were bystanders caught in an indiscriminate dragnet by U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and were subsequently denied legal counsel, the right to habeas corpus and contact with their family and friends. In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment, there was a marked increase in the contact between inmates and legal counsels, triggering an avalanche of first hand stories about the facility into the ears of a disbelieving American public.
This coincided with the resignation of the former chief prosecutor of Guantánamo’s Military Commission, Colonel Morris Davis, and its lead prosecutor, Lieutenant Darrel Vandeveld, who left their position under duress after being gradually sidelined for refusing to use evidence obtained through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. It also came in the wake of revelations of CIA- supervised prisoner abuse in the Baghdad Correctional Facility in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
The enhanced interrogation techniques used in the GITMO camp includes,
- Sensory deprivation and overload
- Sleep deprivation
- Induced hypothermia
- Sexual degradation
- Indiscriminate beatings
- Religious Persecution (Interrogation conducted by a female contractor wearing bra, miniskirt and thongs; threats of smearing prisoners with fake menstrual blood; groping)
The extent of the abuse prevented an open trial for Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi national and al-Qaeda operative who is believed to be the 20th hijacker for 9/11 (he was turned away by immigration officials at the Orlando International Airport five weeks before 9/11). The Convening Authority of the Guantanamo Military Commission, former judge Susan J. Crawford, ordered the charges against al-Qahtani to be dropped in May 2008, fearing the furor it would generate, as well as the inadmissibility of his confession should his torture became public. Al-Qahtani’s torture took place over a period of several months, sometimes stretching to 20 hours a day. It includes forced administration of an enema, leashing, beatings and enforced self-urination; all which eventually landed him in the hospital.
The same WikiLeaks documents revealed that 150 released prisoners were ordinary civilians, with absolutely no ties whatsoever to any terrorist groups. Some of them were captured because they were wearing fake Casio watches, thought to be the watch of choice for al-Qaeda operatives.
A number of the remaining detainees were tribal soldiers, farmers and herdsmen who were sent to U.S. garrisons in return for a $5,000 bounty. A few were handed to Pakistani and Afghani authorities as punishment for personal or tribal disputes, sweetened by the same $5,000 reward.
The GITMO camp detainees also included an 89-year old man suffering from dementia and a 14-year old kidnap victim who was initially detained to provide intelligence on his captors’ modus operandi, only to be imprisoned along with the other prisoners. Also detained was Sami al-Hajj, a reporter with Qatar-based broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, which drew furious reactions of journalists worldwide. All three were eventually released without charges being brought.
These allegations were corroborated in a sworn affidavit filed by Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the Chief of Staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in support of a suit brought by former GITMO camp detainee Adel Hassan Hamad against the U.S. government.
Excerpts from Colonel Wilkerson affidavit:
- “The people who ended up in Guantanamo were mostly turned over to the US by Afghan warlords and others who received bounties of up to $5000 per head for each person they turned in. The majority of the 742 detainees had never seen a U.S. soldier in the process of their initial detention.”
- “… that the likelihood was high that some of the Guantanamo detainees had been turned in to U.S. forces in order to settle local scores, for tribal reasons, or just as a method of making money...”
- “… there was no real method of knowing why the prisoner had been detained in the first place…”
- “… there was no meaningful way to determine whether they were terrorists, Taliban, or simply innocent civilians picked up on a very confused battlefield or in the territory of another state such as Pakistan...”
GITMO camp critics contend that the United States should not condone these blatant transgressions that go against everything the country stands for and the government should immediately charge the remaining prisoners for war crimes in an open court of law or return them to their country of origin.
Guantanamo Bay is the world’s most notorious prison; its inhabitants are many of the world’s most dangerous war criminals. With multiple cases of human rights implications through the CIA’s suggestive interrogation methods, it is no surprise that this facility is often labelled as a gulag over a detainment camp. This has created a juxtapose between governments and activists for over a decade which questions the United States ethics on the detainment of prisoners of war.
Guantanamo Bay was established in 2002 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The military labyrinth was formulated to interrogate and prosecute detainees who posed as a threat to the security of the United States with the objective behind establishing the camp to supplement intelligence to fuel the nation’s “war on terror”. The camp’s erection commenced under the Bush administration, amidst the American forces involvement in Afghanistan, capturing and occupying followers of Bin Laden’s militant Islamist organization Al-Qaeda.
A controversial decision by President Bush, shortly after the prison was established was to nullify the detention camp outside of U.S. jurisdiction. This move allowed the prison to operate outside of the protection granted by Geneva Convention. Expulsion from the standards of international law and humanitarian treatment of prisoners enabled the United States to override the protection of violence, mutilation, murder and torture to detainees. Two years later these rights were revoked by the Supreme Court, stating that prisoners of war were entitled to the Geneva Convention’s third act which enables detainees the right to minimal protection within the facility.
During 2006, the facility gained negative press for its continued reports of abuse and torture which lead to a United Nations investigation. They campaigned for the prison to be shut down, which was unsuccessful. With the Bush administration under global pressure, they appointed Susan J Crawford, a decorated U.S. military judge to oversee military trials; she was the first official to concede information that torture was still a persistent practice within the prison.
In 2009 President Barack Obama issued a request to suspend all activity at Guantanamo bay for 120 days and to shut down all operations in the facility for that year. The request was shortly declined by a military judge at Guantanamo during the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a detainee responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole and mastermind of several Al-Qaeda operations. On the 20th of May 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 which blocked all funds needed to transfer or release prisoners held at the detention camp. This allowed prisoners to be transferred overseas or into federal high security prisons with fewer detainment restrictions.
On the 7th of January 2011, President Obama impeded the complete closure of the facility by signing the Defense Authorization Bill which placed restrictions on the transfer of prisoners to the mainland or foreign countries. Due to the opposition of closure in Congress, it is unlikely that Guantanamo Bay will ever be closed.
Impact of Obama Administration
In the 2008 presidential election, Obama made a promise that if elected he would close down Guantanamo Bay. Despite the facility still being operational in the present, there are still over 120 detainees at the prison and minor progress being made to meet this goal. With much regret, Obama recently answered at a press conference in Ohio that he wishes he closed Guantanamo Bay on the first day of his presidency. The premise of Obama’s promise stems from the election campaign, when rival Republican politician John McCain stated that he was not opposed to closing the facility. Obama saw this as an opportunity to gain favor of the American population and popularity from overseas supporters. Obama blamed the republican opposition in congress for not being able to pass the closure of the military prison during his presidency.
Despite claims of Republican obstruction, Obama has the power to push his legislation through and close the facility. However congress has overpowered the president by adding measures to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which constitutes the overall defense budget of the country. Every time Obama attempts to push for closure, republican members of congress campaign for strict and firmer upholding of the NDAA’s guidelines, ultimately leading to Obama backing down his movement.
In 2010 Obama was recognized for his efforts through a Nobel Peace Prize, during his acceptance speech he stated that the “suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence”. With many of the detainees outraged at with Obama’s acceptance of the award and lack of sincerity of the comments made due to many prisoners having their religious practice revoked, a hunger strike occurred in the facility. For over 200 days a significant number of prisoners rejected food as an opposition to the confiscation of books, letters, personal possessions and prison guards mishandling of the Koran. There was also an underlying factor that many of the prisoners were clear for release whilst still being detained. This later resulted in prison guards force feeding prisoners whilst restrained to chairs which many detainee lawyers considered an act of torture.
Many journalists have complained that basic information about the prison complex in Guantanamo Bay is being withheld from the public, despite the Bush administration being more transparent regarding its data. The media states that it finds it difficult to ascertain how many inmates are on hunger strikes or how frequently assaults on guards take place. Freedom of Information Act requests are increasingly harder than ever to process and government officials often fail to provide any information unless a media outlet files a lawsuit. When Obama entered office there were 242 detainees, there are now currently 80 due to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009, which enabled prisoners to be transferred. The biggest accomplishment gained was in 2014 when the president managed to release almost 30 prisoners.
Fairness and Current State of Affairs
On the 18th of June 2013, President Obama publicly disclosed the names of inmates classified as “indefinite detainees”- individuals considered too great a risk to national security to be released and are ineligible to be tried in court. He stated that it would be impossible to try these prisoners in court due to there being a lack of evidence. This is considered by political activists to be a constitutional crisis with no justification to for holding anyone indefinitely without a trial.
There is justification towards Obama’s actions by which prisoners are being held with accordance to the principles of the laws of war, which means they are being held during the conflict to keep out of the conflict. However the conflict in Afghanistan has concluded which would result in detainees deserving the right to transfer or release as long as it is outside of the boundaries of America’s conceptualization of the ‘war on terrorism’. The list of indefinite detainees is made up of predominantly Yemenis and Afghans; two are labeled as “high value detainees”, meaning they are sectioned off from other inmates and regularly interrogated for intelligence.
For those detained with the right to be transferred, the process has been arduous for congress to pass clearance to other nations. Negotiations with third-party countries to take in detainees are proving to be slow, often due to their own politics. There is a slew of conditions that host countries must adhere to, to assure that inmates that are transferred are closely monitored and do not establish networks with current terrorist organizations. The United States is cautious to release detainees back to their homelands criticizing that many detainees will be subject to conditions worse than those existent at Guantanamo.
The current stalemate of inmate transfers means that Guantanamo bay is likely to remain open indefinitely, despite costing US taxpayers over $170 million a year for upkeep of the facility. The reality is that Americans are paying an even higher price as the prison is being used as a symbol by opponents of the United States. Laura Pitter, a national security council member at Human Rights Watch states that “it generates enormous hostility around the world and fuels anti-American propaganda”.
Candidates' Positions on Guantanamo