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Guantanamo’s prison population continues to slowly shrink

At the start of the Obama era, Guantanamo Bay had 242 inmates. Under Biden, it’s down to 34. Republicans appear determined to keep the prison open anyway.


It was about six months ago when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration is moving forward with plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, even appointing a senior diplomat to oversee detainee transfers. The New York Times reported that the administration is slowly making some progress.

A small Central American nation, known for its barrier reef and ecotourism, has taken in a former terrorist turned U.S. government informant whose tale of torture by the C.I.A. moved a military jury at Guantánamo Bay to urge the Pentagon to grant him leniency. U.S. forces released Majid Shoukat Khan, 42, to the custody of the authorities in Belize on Thursday after a two-hour flight from the U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

Khan’s resettlement comes on the heels of the U.S. transferring Saifullah Paracha, who was held for nearly two decades without being charged with a crime, to Pakistan.

Revisiting our earlier coverage, The response from Republicans hasn’t exactly been constructive. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, displaying the kind of policy seriousness that’s made him famous, last year accused the administration of wanting to “free more terrorists.” Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the new Republican chair of 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.”

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. As regular readers know, 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 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 stood at 41. On Trump’s last day in office, the prison had just 40 inmates.

And now, that total is down to 34.

About a month after 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 34 to zero will remain a difficult challenge for the administration.

This post is a revised version of our related earlier coverage.