President Barack Obama appears to be renewing an effort to fulfill his 2009 pledge to close the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and either repatriate the terrorist suspects held there to other countries that are willing to take them or bring them to the mainland for trial in U.S. courts. The president should do whatever he can to further reduce the inmate population at Guantanamo during his remaining term in office with the eventual goal of shutting it down for good. Indefinitely holding prisoners who have been neither charged nor convicted of any crime is an affront to our legal system and our values that is unsustainable in a democracy.
The issue of what to do with the prisoners at Guantanamo has been fraught with controversy ever since the president announced his intention to shutter the facility six years ago, and he surely will face claims from the new Republican-dominated Congress that releasing any of the prisoners at Guantanamo would make Americans less safe. But most of those who remain at the facility are either low-level Taliban fighters captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan or people with no connection to terrorism at all who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were scooped up by U.S. and allied forces. Over the last decade hundreds of former Guantanamo detainees have been released without compromising national security.
News reports suggest that in the last two months the Obama administration has made more progress toward emptying the facility than it has since 2009, leaving just 127 prisoners at the military prison, down from a high of 680 in 2003. The administration has said it plans to release two more groups of prisoners in the coming weeks, though it has not specified exactly how many. Officials have said the immediate goal is to reduce the number of inmates there to between 60 and 80 prisoners, at which point it would no longer make economic sense to keep the facility open.
Mr. Obama's critics insist the prison at Guantanamo is vital to prevent terrorist suspects from possibly returning to the battlefield and again threatening American lives. In previous inmate releases the detainees have been sent back to their home countries, whose governments have pledged to monitor their activities so they don't take up arms again.
Most of the prisoners still at Guantanamo reportedly are from Yemen where an active insurgency by an al-Qaida affiliate continues to threaten the government. Because the Yemeni military has suffered a string of setbacks against the rebels over the last year, the Obama administration deemed the country too unstable to support the supervised repatriation of Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo and is looking for other countries willing to take them in. There are also several dozen inmates at Guantanamo who are simply too dangerous to release but who can't be tried in U.S. courts because their confessions were obtained through torture. They too will likely stay at the facility until they either are tried before military tribunals or some other country agrees to accept them.
There are no easy or quick solutions to any of these problems, which have been exacerbated by members of Congress and many state legislatures who opposed moving prisoners out of Guantanamo and into existing prisons in the U.S. where they could be tried. Congress has consistently refused to allow detainees to be transferred to the mainland, and as a result Guantanamo will likely remain open for the foreseeable future despite the president's best efforts. That means it almost certainly will be a problem for the next administration as well. Much as he may want to close Guantanamo, Mr. Obama seems resigned to the prospect that it may not happen until after he has left the White House.
Until then, however, his administration must continue the progress it has made in recent months toward reducing the inmate population at the facility. In the context of the global war on terror the number of remaining detainees is small, and most of them pose no threat to our national security. Those who were actively involved as leaders of terrorist organizations have long since been replaced, and after more than a decade in captivity they've likely lost their influence along with whatever terrorist skills they once may have possessed. They've been physically and psychologically upended, ground down and debilitated. Experience now shows that detainees can be repatriated without putting us at risk. Meanwhile Guantanamo remains as a great moral stain on everything that this country stands for. It needs to be closed as soon as possible; it should have been closed long ago.