Located at the southeastern end of Cuba, Guantanamo Bay is the site of a U.S. Naval base that covers approximately 45 square miles. This base was established in 1898 when the United States assumed control of Cuba from Spain following the Spanish-American War. Since early 2002, a portion of the base has housed a small group of detainment camps for militant al Qaeda and Taliban combatants captured by the American military during its post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These camps are named Camp Delta, Camp Echo, and Camp Iguana. A fourth facility, Camp X-Ray, ceased operations in April 2002. At one time, the Guantanamo detention center housed as many as 780 prisoners, most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
As Gordon Cucullu writes in The American Enterprise:
"These 'detainees' are not innocent foot soldiers ... They are Islamic fundamentalists from across the Middle East, rabid jihadists who have dedicated their lives to the destruction of America and Western civilization. Among the residents are al-Qaeda organizers, bomb makers, financial specialists, recruiters of suicide attackers, and just plain killers. Many of these men met frequently with Osama bin Laden. The terrorist Maad Al Qahtani, a Saudi who is a self-confessed collaborator with the September 11 hijackers, is one of many infamous captives....
Sometimes abbreviated as GTMO or "Gitmo," the Guantanamo military prison camps have drawn the ire of many leftwing human rights organizations which allege that the prisoners are being mistreated or tortured. In late 2001, a campaign began in earnest to permanently shut down Guantanamo. The individual most responsible for launching this campaign was Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
Other leftist organizations followed the lead of Ratner and CCR in condemning the Guantanamo detention center. These critics objected to America's use of an offshore prison, and to the unclear legal status of its detainees (who are classified as "illegal combatants" not entitled to Geneva Convention protections, rather than as prisoners-of-war or common criminals). The critics also claimed that the detainees were entitled to the protection of the constitutionally guaranteed civil rights given to prisoners who are incarcerated within the United States.
On May 25, 2005, Amnesty International characterized Guantanamo as "the gulag our times," lamenting that it evoked "images of Soviet repression" and the practices of "Latin American dictators in the past."
Other organizations involved in the coordinated attack on the Guantanamo detention center include the Guantanamo Human Rights Commission; the American Civil Liberties Union; the National Lawyers Guild; the Bill of Rights Defense Committee; Human Rights Watch; Human Rights First; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; the National Council of Churches; Solidarity USA; Not In Our Name; Code Pink for Peace; United For Peace and Justice; Global Exchange; International ANSWER; and Refuse & Resist!
Prominent members of the Democratic Party have also been among the leading critics of Guantanamo. For example, in April 2007 Senator Hillary Clinton called for the closure of the detention center, stating:
"Guantanamo has become associated in the eyes of the world with a discredited administration policy of abuse, secrecy, and contempt for the rule of law. Rather than keeping us more secure, keeping Guantanamo open is harming our national interests."
On June 14, 2005, Senator Richard Durbin went to the floor of the Senate and compared American interrogation techniques in Guantanamo to methods used by some of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in history. After reading an account which claimed that detainees were being held in rooms that were either too cold or too hot, and where loud rap music was being played, Durbin said:
"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners."
A number of the Guantanamo detainees alleging abuse have gone on hunger strikes. Their complaints include claims that they are kept in mesh-sided cells with little privacy; that lights are left on around the clock, making it difficult for them to sleep; that they are kept in isolation most of the time; that they are blindfolded when being relocated within the camps; that they are not permitted to talk in groups of more than three; that camp authorities disrespect Islam; and that they (the prisoners) are beaten, required to maintain uncomfortable postures for extended time periods, and forced to ingest so-called "truth drugs."
In reality, all Guantanamo detainees are provided with Islamic religious items; certified halal (adhering to Islamic law) meals; regular opportunities to attend Islamic religious services; a 6,000-book library that is well-stocked with Islamic literature as well as books and DVDs on a wide range of subjects; an outdoor basketball court; a special classroom where various languages are taught; and state-of-the-art medical and dental facilities. For a more comprehensive look at the amenities provided for the detainees, click here.
On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for the Guantanamo Bay detention center to be closed permanently within one year. At the time of this directive, there were 245 detainees still in custody.
On July 21, 2009, the Obama administration granted its Guantanamo closing commission an extra six months to study the feasibility of permanently shuttering the facility.
On December 16, 2009: President Obama signed a presidential memorandum ordering Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to acquire an empty state prison in Thompson, Illinois as a replacement for the Guantanamo detention center.
As of February 2010, only 198 prisoners remained at Guantanamo; the rest had been released during previous years. According to Pentagon spokesman Commander Jeffrey Gorden, all detainees go through a comprehensive series of reviews before being set free -- because of the inherent risk involved in letting them go. Nonetheless, a January 2009 Pentagon report stated that at least 61 former detainees had returned to terrorist activities after being released. A January 2010 Pentagon report placed the known recidivism rate at 20 percent.
On May 19, 2010, the Democrat-controlled House Armed Services Committee issued a prohibition against any opening of a Guantanamo detention replacement facility within the United States.
On June 25, 2010, the New York Times stated: “Stymied by political opposition and focused on competing priorities, the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantanamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.”
On March 25, 2013, U.S. military spokesman Robert Durand announced that 28 of the 166 prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay were on hunger strikes. By May 16, 2013, the number of hunger strikers had increased to 102.
On May 23, 2013, President Obama exhorted Congress to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center: "Given my administration's relentless pursuit of al Qaeda's leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened."
On May 31, 2014, the Obama administration transferred five Guantanamo detainees to Qatar in exchange for the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had deserted the American military a few years earlier. On August 21, 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated that the Defense Department had violated federal law by carrying out the Bergdahl exchange without giving Congress the appropriate notice.
As of December 11, 2014, the Guantanamo Bay detention center held 136 prisoners in military custody.
As of March 30, 2017, 41 individuals remained in custody at Guantanamo.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, and books that examine:
- the leading critics of the Guantanamo Bay detention center -- individuals and organizations that generally call for the immediate closure of the center;
- the charges of critics who claim that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are routinely denied their basic human and civil rights, and that they are abused and/or tortured by American authorities;
- the mindset, worldview, temperament, behavior, and life experiences of the Guantanamo detainees;
- what Guantanamo detainees do after they are released from custody; and
- President Barack Obama's effort to permanently close the Guantanamo detention center as soon as possible.