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US prison camp Guantánamo
An American flag blows behind a barbed wire fence in the wind in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.Maren Hennemuth / picture alliance via Getty Image, file

Biden admin shrinks Guantanamo’s prison population a little more

At the start of the Obama era, Guantanamo had 242 inmates. President Joe Biden has now lowered the total to 37. The tricky part is reaching zero.


When Barack Obama’s presidency got underway, the Democrat was eager to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and took steps to make that happen. As regular readers may recall, President Joe Biden wants to finish the job.

It was against this backdrop that The New York Times reported yesterday on the U.S. military sending to Algeria a prisoner “whose repatriation from Guantanamo Bay was arranged during the Obama administration but then delayed for five years.”

The prisoner, Sufyian Barhoumi, 48, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and soon taken to Guantanamo Bay, where he never faced trial. He was notified in August 2016 that he was eligible for release, but his case was sidelined by a Trump administration policy that generally halted transfers. The transfer was the second this year and the third since President Biden took office with the goal of closing Guantanamo.

Updating our earlier coverage, the prison’s population peaked in 2003 with 680 prisoners. The Bush/Cheney administration began moving detainees out in its second term, and by the time Obama took office, the population was down to 242 prisoners.

In 2009 and 2010, Congress made it effectively impossible for the Democrat to close the facility altogether, but Obama successfully lowered the prison population from 242 to 41.

“As president, I have tried to close Guantanamo,” Obama said in a letter to congressional leaders on his last full day in office. “When I inherited this challenge, it was widely recognized that the facility — which many around the world continue to condemn — needed to close. Unfortunately, what had previously been bipartisan support for closure suddenly became a partisan issue. Despite those politics, we have made progress.”

The point of the progress, obviously, was to reduce the overall population, but it was also intended to appeal to Republicans’ sense of fiscal sanity: the smaller the number of detainees, the harder it becomes to justify the massive expense of keeping open a detention facility that houses so few people.

Even if congressional Republicans are inclined to ignore every other consideration, the hope has long been that GOP lawmakers would at least care about wasteful spending: it costs American taxpayers about $13 million per prisoner, per year.

For his part, Donald Trump promised voters he’d reverse the progress, telling the public in 2016, in reference to the Guantanamo Bay prison, “We’re gonna load it up with some bad dudes, believe me, we’re gonna load it up.”

As was true about so many of the Republican’s promises, none of this reflected reality. On his first day in office, the number of inmates was down to 41. On Trump’s last day in office, the prison sometimes referred to as “Gitmo” had just 40 inmates.

And now, that total is down to 37.

About a month after Biden’s inauguration, the White House announced plans to shut down the prison once and for all, with the Departments of Defense, State, and Justice planning to work with the White House National Security Council in pursuit of the goal.

The latest developments suggest officials have made some progress, but lowering the number from 37 to zero will remain a difficult challenge for the administration.