Closing Guantanamo: Can Biden succeed where Obama failed?

Democrats in Congress must agree to drop restrictions from laws that prevent the president from closing the prison

(FILES) In this file photo taken on January 11, 2016 demonstrators take part in a protest calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison in front of the White House in Washington, DC.  US President Joe Biden wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects before the end of his term, the White House said February 12,2021, echoing an unfulfilled campaign promise from Barack Obama's administration. Asked at a press conference about a possible closure of the prison in Cuba during Biden's tenure, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "That certainly is our goal and our intention."
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Former president Barack Obama famously pledged to close Guantanamo Bay during his first campaign for the White House, stating that, “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantanamo, we have compromised our most precious values.”

Although Mr Obama signed a 2008 executive order to close the prison within a year on his second full day in office, the notorious US detention centre in Cuba has now remained open during four different administrations.

President Joe Biden has also pledged to close the prison, first opened by former president George W Bush, and the White House launched a review of the issue this month. Nonetheless, the congressional impediments that prevented Mr Obama from closing Guantanamo still remain on the books.

But that may not be the case for long.

"Many police debates are given new life in the beginning of an administration, and this year the discussion regarding Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is among them," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith told The National. "As we continue this policy debate, those of us who believe the detention facility should be closed still have work to do."

That work will involve repealing long-standing restrictions on closing Guantanamo that Congress inserts into two pieces of legislation that become US law every year: an annual defence authorisation bill and a government spending bill.

“With close to 1,500 military assigned to provide security for just 40 detainees, [Guantanamo] is simply not a cost-effective use of taxpayers’ dollars,” said Mr Smith. “I look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration to build support for closing [Guantanamo] and work with my congressional colleagues to address the legislative measures that have previously hampered efforts to close [Guantanamo] for good.”

Ironically, Congress maintained restrictions that kept Mr Obama from closing Guantanamo even when Democrats controlled Congress during the first two years of his presidency.

Even progressive stalwarts such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren voted against easing the restrictions in the Senate in 2013.

Unable to legally close the prison, Mr Obama largely contented himself with gradually trying to empty it by transferring prisoners to third-party countries, including the United Arab Emirates.

By the end of Mr Obama’s presidency, the prison held 41 prisoners, down from 242 when he took office. The prison held nearly 800 inmates at its peak under the Bush administration.

And while Mr Trump did not transfer any detainees out of the facility, he also did not add more, despite his 2016 campaign pledge to do so.

Luckily for Mr Biden, Democrats in Congress have had a change of heart in closing the prison.

Mr Smith, whose committee oversees the annual defence authorisation bill, first led the push to remove the restrictions on closing Guantanamo Bay from the legislation in 2019.

While the Democratic-held House passed the bill without the restrictions, the Republican-held Senate insisted on maintaining the prohibitions in the final legislation that Mr Trump signed into law.

The House Appropriations Committee followed Mr Smith’s lead last year, opting to remove similar restrictions from the annual defence-spending bill in a party-line vote. Still, the House lost out in negotiations with Senate Republicans and the restrictions remained in the compromise spending package that Mr Trump signed in December.

The new chairwoman of the defence appropriations subcommittee, Betty McCollum, told The National that she also supports closing the prison.

“For nearly two decades, the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has undermined the US commitment to human rights and proven to be a stain on the soul of America and our values,” said Ms McCollum. “I fully expect Congress and the Biden administration to work towards a responsible and deliberate path to closing the detention facility. That is my goal and I intend to stay focused on it.”

Both bills hamper any attempt Mr Biden may make to close the prison.

But with congressional Democrats’ change of heart on closing the prison, and their new control of Congress, albeit by a razor-thin margin, Mr Biden may have an opportunity to succeed where Mr Obama failed – assuming Senate Democrats jump on board.