WASHINGTON -- Candidate Barack Obama pledged that hed close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Easier said than done. As president, Obama has failed to shut down the facility he calls "expensive," and "inefficient" and a "recruitment tool for terrorists."
On April 30, Obama promised that hell "go back at" the Guantánamo problem, which frustrated him during his first term. His pledge raises many questions, some easier to answer than others.
Q: How long has the Guantánamo detention center been around?
A: Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced on Dec. 27, 2001, that some prisoners captured in Afghanistan would be held within the bounds of the 45-square-mile U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, which the United States has occupied since 1903 under a lease that gives the U.S. rights "in perpetuity." The first 20 detainees arrived Jan. 11, 2002.
Q: Why Guantánamo?
A: Pentagon officials considered a variety of Pacific island and other remote locations for holding men detained during the so-called war on terrorism that President George W. Bush declared after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Officials eventually turned to Guantánamo, which previously had been used to house Haitians and Cubans whod been picked up on the high seas trying to reach the United States.
Officials thought that in addition to providing limited access, which would ease security concerns, Guantánamo would keep the men held there from accessing U.S. federal courts since Guantánamo is part of Cuba. The Supreme Court eventually rejected that argument, however, and allowed the detainees to file habeas corpus petitions challenging their imprisonment.
Q: Who is being held at Guantánamo?
A: Currently, 166 men are detained there, more than half of them from Yemen. Three of the 166 have been convicted of crimes by a military commission, seven have been charged with crimes including the five accused of conspiring in the 9/11 attacks and 24 may face criminal charges. Of the remainder, 86 have been cleared for release or transfer to other countries and 46 face no criminal charges but a multi-agency review of their cases found them to be too dangerous to release. At its peak, in May 2003, the facility held about 680 men. The last prisoner arrived in March 2008.
Q: Why are they called detainees rather than prisoners?
A: The Pentagon says it uses the term for most of the men because they havent been convicted of crimes. The three whove been convicted are called prisoners.
Q: What are the conditions like?
A: When the first detainees arrived, they were housed in wire enclosures that looked like a backyard dog kennel. Now most detainees are in air-conditioned buildings, styled after a maximum-security prison in the United States. The buildings are called camps, though they have little in common with the image that word conjures.
Until recently, most of the detainees were in Camp 6, where they were allowed to keep their cell doors open and move freely in a common area where they could watch television and eat together. But in April, in response to detainees covering cameras used to monitor them, the guards forced all the prisoners back into their single-occupancy, 6.8- by 12-foot cells. The most secret of the facilities, Camp 7, holds an estimated 15 of the highest-value detainees, including those accused of planning the 9/11 attacks. As of Monday, 100 detainees were refusing food; 23 of those are force-fed twice daily through tubes snaked up their noses and down their throats.