Robert Charles: Time to close Guantanamo Bay? Democrats will say yes but I say, don’t even think of it

Should the United States shut down the Navy’s Guantanamo Bay Cuba detention facility, currently holding more than 40 hardened enemy combatants? The question – sure to appear in the 2020 presidential race – tends to produce four answers: “Yes, shut it down, give them a trial in America.” “Yes, send them to a third country.” “No, clear facts and danger of release in America or onto the battlefield makes detention essential.” And “who cares?” The real answer is, there is no easy answer, so Guantanamo must stay open.

Maintaining an America Naval Base – and military detention facility – on the communist Island of Cuba may strike average Americans as a bit odd but history explains. In 1898, when Cuba was Spanish, the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. The explosion, attributed to a Spanish mine, led to war. 

American troops – led by Col. Theodore Roosevelt – stormed San Juan Hill, and Spain eventually lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Although Cuba was awarded independence, terms and conditions were complicated, and U.S. influence considerable.


In 1903, under a lease agreement negotiated by then-President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. gained jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay, which became a naval port and holding facility. The U.S. continues to pay rent. So, that’s how we got there.

In recent decades, before 9/11 terrorism, Guantanamo was a key processing center for refugees and asylum seekers. In the 1990s, 30,000 Haitian refugees were housed at Guantanamo Bay. But all this history begs a bigger question: What should be done now, at a time when dangerous terrorists are held there, allegations of torture tainting likely conviction in U.S. courts?

Compounding the problem, any release to third countries has clearly proved – after Obama released 201 of 242 – that they tend to end up back on the battlefield, again endangering American security by returning to terrorism.

The combination of those two facts – evidence taint and battlefield return – is what stopped both President Bush and President Obama from closing the facility. Back in 2009, Obama signed an executive order seeking to empty Guantanamo and close it in a year, but Congress said: “Whoa, not so fast.”

The alternatives, in their view, were not viable. They still aren’t. Bringing war criminals to American communities, where they may escape, coordinate terrorist acts from prison, win release after trial for evidentiary missteps despite overwhelming evidence against them – was not popular. Those released to third countries have often resumed terrorist activities.

So, even as Obama scrambled to release the worst-of-the-worst at his administration’s end, leaders in both parties were not happy. Without a better plan, closing the detention facility – let alone the entire Naval Base – seemed a fool’s errand. It still is.

If harsh interrogation without imminent threat is ill-advised, undermining American commitments to rule of law and human rights, military commissions are still appropriate. Blithely releasing war criminals to restart terrorism is foolish – actually, downright irresponsible. Importing these terrorists to America for civilian trials, given the risks entailed, is equally indefensible.

So, we are right where we started. What is the answer? Without beating around the bush – as he never does – President Trump says Guantanamo Bay will stay open, as long as he is president. He sees value in keeping terrorists contained, not empowering their return to terrorism or possible release into American communities. By all indications, when push comes to shove, most in Congress agree.

No one likes the idea of indefinite detention, but Congress has repeatedly limited judicial rulings widening habeas corpus and other appeals for enemy combatants – although more than 200 habeas appeals have been filed. So, we are where we began – without a good answer, muddling through because this is a tough question.


The kicker is this: In 2020 if early interviews are any indication, the entire Democratic presidential field will say “We need to close Guantanamo Bay!” But you know the truth. Slogans don’t solve problems. Making complex problems simple is disingenuous.

American security matters, and it does to most Americans – of both parties. In a perfect world, there would be no tough questions. In a perfect world, there would be no war criminals and no hardened, unrepentant anti-American terrorists. We do not live in that world.