It has been 10 years since the Guantanamo Bay detention facility accepted its first detainees. From its inception, the camp situated at an American military base in southeastern Cuba was a wrongheaded effort to bypass U.S. and international law. The images of shackled detainees in orange jumpsuits who were to be held incommunicado and indefinitely — and the stories of abuse that soon followed — turned the camp into an indelible symbol of America losing its way. This is no anniversary to celebrate.
President Barack Obama has attempted to close the camp, but Congress has repeatedly stymied the effort. Before there was a Guantanamo most Americans probably would have rejected the idea that one could exist. President George W. Bush justified his abandonment of America's constitutional principles and international treaties by claiming it was necessary in the "war on terror," a war whose boundaries encompassed the entire world. Under Bush, terror suspects were held as "enemy combatants" without due process or the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Thankfully, the U. S. Supreme Court gave Guantanamo prisoners habeas corpus rights to challenge the legality of their detentions. The high court also overturned Bush's executive order establishing a military commission system that would have provided little in the way of a fair trial to accused Guantanamo prisoners. Even today's congressionally approved military tribunal system fails to meet standard due process requirements.
When the camp opened, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it would hold only "the worst of the worst." But of the nearly 800 prisoners who have spent time there, many if not most never posed any real threat to America's safety. Time and again the military transferred innocent men to the facility after taking the word of the Afghans and Pakistanis who handed over the prisoners in exchange for large bounties or to settle old scores. The approximately 27 percent recidivism rate is far lower than for inmates released from American prisons. And of the 171 prisoners that remain, 88 have been cleared for release but cannot be sent back to their home countries because they might be harmed or the country is too unstable.
Of course the most heinous aspect of Guantanamo's history is the prisoner mistreatment that took place. Detainees were subjected to "enhanced interrogation," a euphemism for abusive treatment — such as sleep deprivation and forcing detainees into painful positions for long durations — approved by Bush administration officials at the highest levels. Obama put an end to such practices, but the prison camp's perpetuation remains an unhappy reminder.
Despite all of the errors in judgment and cruelties, many in Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — insist that Guantanamo stay open. Last month in a defense authorization bill, Congress extended its moratorium on bringing Guantanamo suspects to the United States for trial or detention, and made it more difficult to transfer detainees to other countries. Obama wants those restrictions repealed, but Guantanamo perseveres because the politics of fear continues to win out over sensible policy and good government. Ten years later, Guantanamo remains one of America's great shames.