What is Guantanamo Bay? It is a detention facility. It is a venue for military commissions. It has become a buzzword that encapsulates America's visceral response to the September 11 attacks and resulting wars.
And critics, including the president, say it serves as a battle cry for Islamic extremists, highlighting what they consider institutional injustice in the West.
America's opinion of the terror prison in Cuba mirrors the political schism in the U.S., as hawkish proponents such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., say it is a "state of the art" facility to house "the meanest, nastiest killers in the world."
President Barack Obama renewed his inaugural campaign commitment on Tuesday to close the detention facility at the steamy sun-drenched base on the southeastern end of Cuba. Recent reported problems there, such as a supposed ongoing hunger strike involving a majority of the inmates, are unsurprising, he said.
Much of the debate comes down to legality. Ongoing trials at the base, known as "Gitmo," employ precedents and regulations both from federal courts and from military tribunals. Lawyers on both sides of the courtroom try to make sense of amorphous rules regarding detainees whose status as civilians or military combatants remains unclear.
U.S. News breaks down some of the president's statements on Tuesday and how they could shape the future of the prison.
"It is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," Obama said. "It is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists."
It costs roughly $800,000 a year to house a captive at the detention facility, according to the Miami Herald. Though some would say this is a worthwhile investment.
While speaking at the American Enterprise Institute in March, Chambliss lauded the new legal facility at Gitmo on what used to be an airfield. The air-conditioned courtroom is customized to secure as many as six high-profile detainees at once, and includes a soundproof viewing gallery for journalists and other observers.
"I have never seen a courtroom that compares to the courtroom we have now built at Guantanamo Bay. It is state of the art," Chambliss said. "These guys we took to Guantanamo, and particularly the guys who are still there, are the meanest, nastiest killers in the world."
"We're still gleaning information from those individuals today because of the rules of war," said Chambliss.
This point was the primary focus of recent pretrial hearings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused "mastermind" of the Sept. 11 attacks, and four other alleged high-ranking al-Qaida officials. Defense lawyers argued the government continued to monitor private meetings with their clients in an attempt to gain further intelligence.
"The Guantanamo Bay facility was created to interrogate and detain detainees captured on the battlefield who were believed to have critical information about additional plans to attack the United States," says Daphne Eviatar, an expert on Guantanamo Bay with advocacy group Human Rights First. "The men have all been there so long at this point, cut off from their families, former associates and communities, that none of them could possibly have any more useful information to share with us. So I think at this point even those Americans who tolerated its creation 11 years ago can see that the detention center has long outlived its intended use."
U.S. News Reports From Guantanamo Bay:
- A Terrorist's Defense: Fighting for Men Most Americans Hate
- Most Pressing Question at Guantanamo: When Will it End?
- Gitmo Detainee Lashes Out at Judge
- Intelligence Agents Could Monitor Gitmo Detainee, Lawyer Meeting Rooms, Official Says
- Wife of 9/11 Victim Finds Solace in Courtroom Minutia
- Special Forces Soldier, Son of Fallen Firefighter, Among 9/11 Hearing Witnesses
- Guantanamo Judge Mutes Mics After Defense's Spying Claims
- Lawyers for Alleged 9/11 Hijackers Claim Government Eavesdrops on Private Talks
A Pentagon spokesman says the military does not believe the Gitmo detention facility necessarily protects America.
"None of us believe that keeping Guantanamo open is in America's security interests. It deteriorates our standing globally, it is a focal point for jihad," says Army Lt. Col Todd Breasseale, a Department of Defense spokesman. "The department doesn't believe that sending detainees is necessary to keeping America safe. We never have."
"We also didn't solicit this mission. The department didn't solicit the former administration to give us a prison to manage that's outside some people's understanding of the two branches of public international law," he adds. "As long as we have the mission, we're going to do it securely, we will do it humanely and we will work to do it effectively."
"The idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are."
"If nothing changes, the prisoners now at Guantanamo will stay there until they die," says Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas, a military lawyer representing one of Mohammed's co-defendants, Ammar al Baluchi.
Only a small number of the 166 detainees still at Guantanamo Bay are designated for trial, he says. The U.S. government has claimed the power to hold the remaining detainees indefinitely, even if they are acquitted.
"The vast majority are being held indefinitely, with no resolution in sight," he says.
Yemeni protestors dressed in prison uniforms, chant slogans during a demonstration April 16 demanding the release of Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo Bay prison in front of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. (Hani Mohammed/AP)
The general officer tasked with prosecuting cases such as Mohammed's says there is an important distinction in the purpose of the detention facility.
Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the military commissions chief prosecutor, told an audience in London last September that the detention process for Guantanamo Bay should be addressed separately from the military commissions taking place there.
"It is of course possible to support both or to oppose both," he said during formal remarks in September to Chatham House, a London-based international affairs NGO. "But without recognizing the distinction, serious analytical errors can result, and I have encountered international colleagues on all sides of these separate questions."
Many of these detainees have been deemed "too dangerous to release," or their home country refuses to accept them back. The complications surrounding their trial largely stem from suspicions that the U.S. government tortured them.
"These prisoners cannot be tried because their cases present insurmountable proof problems based on the evidence collection methods," says Navy Cmdr. Walter Ruiz, who defends Mustafa al-Hawsaw, another co-defendant in that trial.
The Pentagon also points to the complication of finding a new home for some of these detainees.
"The question is: Can these nation-states who assert that they want these men, can they also make the verifiable - required by our own law - assurances that there will be no recidivism, that they will be monitored?" says spokesman Breasseale. "Or, if there are also these nations that can make these assurances, but simply don't want a Gitmo detainee within their borders?"
"It's really an interesting conundrum under which we are working that is not without risk, that requires real diligence, and we remain committed to working under the president's guidance and to fulfilling his goal to close Gitmo's detention facility."
"I understand that reaction [to create the Gitmo prison], but we're now over a decade out. We should be wiser. We should have more experience in how we prosecute terrorists."
"The United States Supreme Court would come to judge that there were significant errors in the legal framework introduced by our government in response to the 9/11 attacks," chief prosecutor Martins said in September.
"Although many detainees have now been established through the civilian judicial process of habeas to be lawfully held as members of al-Qaida or the Taliban who are engaged in armed conflict, many of the nearly 800 detainees brought at some point to Guantanamo were released as captured without sufficient grounds or as not posing a threat."
Defense counselor Ruiz points to inconsistencies from the Obama administration's commitment to this point, most notably through its decision to close a State Department office in January dedicated solely to examining how to shut down the Gitmo detention facility.
Daniel Fried, special envoy for closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, resigned on Jan. 28, reported the New York Times. The administration appointed no replacement and closed the office.
"Our actions speak louder than words," Ruiz says of what he sees as political pressures that forced the president to reverse his decisions. "The problem remains what it has always been, that this case was hijacked a long time ago by the political process."
Deborah Pearlstein, a professor at Yeshiva University's Cardozo Law School, says there is a solution for prosecuting detainees, whether they are foreign accused terrorists arrested in the U.S., or masterminds snatched from foreign countries.
"U.S. federal courts have time and again proven to be the most efficient, effective method for securing the long term detention of terrorist suspects, whether those suspects are picked up here in the United States or overseas," she says.
The benefit of hindsight has helped change the American mindset, says Cindy Panuco, lawyer for a detainee known only as Obaidullah who is participating in the ongoing hunger strike.
"We are able to reflect on that, the condemnation of the notion of Guantanamo by the international community, and we realize this is not the American way," she says.
The challenge remains, as the Pentagon's Breasseale says, finding a country that will take these detainees with the guarantee they will not be tortured, or wind up back on a battlefield.
"We can handle this," Obama said, pointing to the trials in civilian courts that successfully prosecuted the so-called "Underwear Bomber" who attempted to blow up an airplane in Detroit, and "Times Square Bomber." These could be applied to those at Guantanamo Bay, he said.
"The very practical difference is that the U.S. government didn't torture those others," says Marine Corps Maj. Derek Poteet, a lawyer for Mohammed. "The U.S. government tortured and disappeared Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and some of his family members and is taking extraordinary measures to hide the sordid details."
Poteet references an instance at a pre-trial hearing in Guantanamo Bay in February where a yet-unnamed government office shut down the live feed to a proceeding because it thought classified information was being discussed.
"Pre-trial proceedings in Mr. Mohammad's case are happening in a war court, set up during a time of panic and fear," attorney Panuco says. "The ongoing pre-trial proceedings in Mr. Mohammad's case have demonstrated that in the military commissions, our usual notions of fairness and process go out the window."
Panuco says the two cases Obama cited show justice is "better served when our courts provide fair due process to every person regardless of their crime."
Chief prosecutor Martins says all governments are limited by what they didn't know.
"Looking back across the past decade, we might have hoped to get the balance of executive branch authorities and accountability mechanisms right in the first place, before a major attack came, in order to prevent both the attack and any ill-taken countermeasures," he said in September. "But all governments are limited by imperfect information, by uncertainty, and by the psychological reaction that terror induces when cooler heads are unable to assuage that reaction."
Governments and their leaders sometimes make "hasty decisions," he added, based upon fear more than foresight to maintain a sense of safety.
"Then mistakes in the other direction occur because fear of a threat dissipates as the last attack recedes into the past and as indicators of danger are no longer visible to the public," he added.