A Brief History of Guantanamo Post 9–11

On January 11, 2002–just four months after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001–a first planeload of detainees was delivered to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The detainees were marched to a series of cages, collectively known as Camp X-Ray, that would become their prison for the next several months. Open to the elements, the cages exposed detainees to rain and blistering sun until the government moved the detainees to Camp Delta, a concrete facility that more closely resembled a traditional supermax prison.

Fliers and leaflets written in Pashto and Dari said things like, “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life – pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

After September 11, 2001, the U.S. dropped millions of fliers over Afghanistan offering bounties for members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In the end, more than 80% of the 780 detainees at Guantanamo were purchased by the United States from Pakistanis and Afghans for $3,000 to $30,000 each.

Contrary to the Bush administration’s labeling of the prisoners as the “worst of the worst,” several military and government organizations quickly realized that nearly all of the prisoners were not dangerous al Qaeda or Taliban operatives, but individuals who should never have been detained or only detained for a short time.

The U.S. government selected Guantanamo specifically to imprison the men outside the territory of the United States. The Bush Administration intended for the men to be outside the reach of lawyers and the rule of law. In a related maneuver, the administration also labeled the prisoners “enemy combatants,” a generic term that was chosen to circumvent the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution.

In the early years after Guantanamo was opened, an FBI counterterrorism expert estimated that, at most, only 50 detainees were worth holding. And yet hundreds of men languished in the prison for years, sometimes for more than a decade.

They were held without charges, subjected to torture; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; solitary confinement and isolation; inaccessibility to their families and lawyers; and sensory deprivation.

In addition, those men who challenged the system by going on hunger strikes were subjected to brutal force-feeding methods. And, nearly all the men were subjected to a form of physical mistreatment called “ERFing,” now known as Forcible Cell Extraction (FCE). In this prison procedure, six soldiers fully dressed in riot gear and shields entered a detainee’s cell. The lead soldier maced the detainee, and then the soldiers participated in beating him.

To persuade the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case of a dozen Kuwaiti detainees held at Guantanamo, Rasul v. Bush, attorney Tom Wilner argued that when the Cuban iguana crossed the border into Guantanamo, it was protected by American law, under the Endangered Species Act. If the Court did not review his clients’ cases, the Cuban iguana would have greater legal protection than the human beings at Guantanamo.
Photo credit: Peter Jan Honigsberg

Although the detainees won the right twice in the U.S. Supreme Court to file habeas corpus briefs in federal court challenging their detentions, the Bush and Obama administrations pushed back and vigorously defended against every habeas petition that was filed. Consequently, no detainee was released pursuant to a court order. Rather, the government released detainees at its own discretion.

President Bush released approximately 540 detainees, and President Obama released 196.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, there were 255 men left in Guantanamo. Four times during his administration, President Obama vowed to close the detention center. He issued his first proclamation on his second day in office. Guantanamo, “the most potent symbol of a disgraceful era of American history” as stated by the New York Times Editorial Board, has outlasted Obama’s promise and his presidency.

It does not appear that President Trump will have any interest in closing the prison. In fact, he may send more people to Guantanamo. He has stated that he would “load [Guantanamo] up with some bad dudes.” Trump also said that he would be willing to bring American citizens to Guantanamo for trial. Current law forbids the trial of Americans in Guantanamo. However, Congress could reverse the law.

Today, more than fifteen years after the prison camp was first opened, 41 detainees still remain. Many have been cleared for release. Others considered “indefinite” or “forever” prisoners may die in Guantanamo, without having ever been charged with a crime. Four men have been convicted. Seven are still awaiting trial in a military tribunal.

Of course, all the prisoners lost precious and unrecoverable years of their lives. There is no firm data on the ages of the men, but it is believed some were as young as 14 and others were in their 80s. For most of them, these were the years when they would get married and begin families. These experiences can never be regained.

Those who were married with families when captured returned home to meet children whose births they had missed and children who had grown up and did not recognize their fathers.

Many of the detainees were not transferred back home. Instead, they were transferred to countries far from their homelands. In their new host countries, the men have struggled to acclimate to new cultures, learn new languages, find jobs, and secure adequate housing. Most were given the equivalent of $15 per day for food, and substandard housing for two years. After that, they were on their own. For many of the men, thousands of miles still separate them from their loved ones.