President Joe Biden’s aides have launched a formal review into the U.S. military prison at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, reviving Obama’s goal of closing the facility with the aim of doing so before leaving office, the White House said on Friday.
Biden’s aides are considering an executive action to be signed by Biden in coming weeks or months, signaling a new effort to remove what human rights advocates call a significant stain on America’s global image.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Friday, “That certainly is our goal and our intention,” in response to whether Biden would shut the high-security prison located at the Guantanamo Naval Station by the time his presidency ends.
That said, such an initiative will face steep political and legal obstacles that also frustrated efforts by former President Barack Obama to close it.
Housing foreign suspects following the Sept. 11, 2001attacks, the prison symbolizes the excesses of the U.S. War on Terror due to the harsh interrogation methods critics say amounted to torture.
“We are undertaking an NSC process to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has inherited from the previous administration, in line with our broader goal of closing Guantanamo,” National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne told Reuters, the first news agency to report that the review was underway.
“The NSC will work closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice to make progress toward closing the GTMO facility, and also in close consultation with Congress,” she added.
The immediate impact of an announcement could be to reinstate Obama’s Guantanamo closure policy, which Donald Trump reversed once he took office in 2017.
It remains unclear how specific Biden’s coming executive action might be about his prison plans, which holds suspects in the Sept. 11 attacks among its detainee population.
While Obama drew down the number of prisoners at the naval base, his effort to close the prison was primarily stymied by Republican opposition in Congress.
The federal government is barred by law from transferring any inmates to prisons on the U.S. mainland. Even with the Democrats controlling Congress, their majorities are so slim that Biden could face a tough challenge securing legislative changes as some Democrats might also oppose them.
According to the sources familiar with the matter, a revived Guantanamo strategy could focus initially on further decreasing the number of prisoners by repatriating them or finding other countries to accept them.
This could also mean re-establishing a State Department post of Guantanamo closure envoy, created by Obama but eliminated by Trump, to resume negotiations with other governments on detainee transfers, the sources said.
Similarly, the Pentagon could restart a parole-style review process of prisoners’ individual cases to ascertain whether they still pose a threat.
Shutting down the prison has been a demand of progressive Democrats whose support helped Biden win the White House. The prison’s continued existence, critics say, is a reminder of detention practices that opened the United States to accusations of torture.