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Biden again shrinks Guantanamo’s population, creating test for GOP

At the start of the Obama era, Guantanamo had 242 inmates. Under Biden, it’s now down to 35. Republicans are determined to keep the prison open anyway.


For critics of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, The New York Times reported some encouraging news over the weekend.

The United States has released the U.S. military’s oldest prisoner of the war on terror, a 75-year-old businessman who was held for nearly two decades as a suspected sympathizer of Al Qaeda but was never charged with a crime. The man, Saifullah Paracha, a former legal resident of New York, was one of Guantanamo’s most unusual and better known “forever prisoners.” Military prosecutors never sought to put him on trial, but review panels considered him too dangerous to release until last year.

According to the Times’ report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Paracha was transferred to Pakistan as part of diplomatic effort that took months.

The developments came roughly a month after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration is moving forward with plans to close the prison, even “appointing a senior diplomat to oversee detainee transfers.”

The response from Republicans hasn’t exactly been constructive. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz, displaying the kind of policy seriousness that’s made him famous, accused the administration of wanting to “free more terrorists.” Rep. Kay Granger, top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, has also argued, “These detainees are the worst of the worst, and we need assurance that they will never be moved to the United States.”

As we’ve discussed, that’s still not altogether true. Detainees weren’t sent to Guantanamo because they’re the “worst of the worst”; they were sent there because the Bush/Cheney administration wanted to hold the suspects without trial outside of the American judicial system.

As for moving them to the United States, American prisons on American soil already hold plenty of terrorists. The detainees at the facility often known as “Gitmo” don’t have superpowers. Our prisons have proven more than capable of locking up the “worst of the worst.”

What’s especially discouraging is how little the policy debate has advanced over the last decade.

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 Barack 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 had just 40 inmates.

And now, that total is down to 35.

About a month after Joe Biden’s presidential 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 given Republican intransigence, lowering the number from 35 to zero will remain a difficult challenge for the administration.