The moral, military and financial cost of Guantanamo Bay, 20 years later

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A U.S. trooper stands in the turret of a vehicle with a machine gun, left, as a guard looks out from a tower, in this 2010 photo of Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. (Brennan Linsley/AP)
A U.S. trooper stands in the turret of a vehicle with a machine gun, left, as a guard looks out from a tower, in this 2010 photo of Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

20 years ago, the first detainees in America's war on terror arrived at Guantanamo Bay.

“They came in 20 person groups. They had headphones on, they had goggles on, we put them onto busses," retired general Michael Lehnert says. "The busses had the windows blacked out so they couldn't see where they were.”

Many detainees were innocent, and tortured. Presidents since then have promised to close Guantanamo, and failed.

“Guantanamo is the first no-exit strategy military enterprise since the Vietnam War, meaning they picked up human beings and moved them halfway around the globe without an idea of how to undo this," New York Times journalist Carol Rosenberg says. "They’re stuck with this mission."

So, what's next?

Today, On Point: We explore the moral, military and financial cost of Guantanamo Bay, 20 years later.

SEE MORE: Witness To Guantanamo: "The world's most comprehensive collection of Guantanamo stories." — "Witnesses from both sides of the wire and across the political spectrum offer rare perspectives on Guantanamo. Their stories reveal a legal black hole that delivered underwhelming security and overwhelming injustice."


Michael Lehnert, retired major general in the Marine Corps. He supervised the construction of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in January 2002, and ran the facility for three months.

Moazzam Begg, he spent two years as a Guantanamo Bay detainee, from 2003 to 2005. Outreach director at the non-profit CAGE, which advocates for the rule of law. Co-author of "Enemy Combatant." (@Moazzam_Begg)

Carol Rosenberg, she covers Guantanamo Bay for the New York Times. Author of "Guantanamo Bay: The Pentagon’s Alcatraz of the Caribbean." (@carolrosenberg)


Part I

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH [Tape]: We last met in an hour of shock and suffering. In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims. Begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon. Rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan's terrorist training camps, saved people from starvation and freed a country from brutal oppression. The American flag flies again over our embassy in Kabul. Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan, now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: President George W. Bush delivering the State of the Union address on January 29th, 2002. It has been 20 years since the first prisoners arrived at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. On November 13th, 2001, President Bush signed a military order that established tribunals at Guantanamo. Placing the prison outside of the United States allowed the Bush administration to hold prisoners indefinitely, deny them the right to a writ of habeas corpus, meaning the prisoners could not challenge whether the U.S. government was holding them legally.

The administration also classified the prisoners as terrorists instead of prisoners of war, and therefore cast them into a legal dead zone outside the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration also authored memos justifying the use of torture, though it was later proven that many detainees were innocent of any crimes against the United States. President Bush never fully stepped away from his assertion that the prisoners were a threat.

PRES. BUSH [Tape]: Remember, these are, the ones in Guantanamo Bay are killers. They don't share the same values we share. They would like nothing more than to come after America.

CHAKRABARTI: However, by September 2006 and after years of legal and human rights controversies, Bush said he aspired to close it down.

PRES. BUSH [Tape]: I don't want to make any predictions about whether Guantanamo will be available or not. I'm just telling you it's a very complicated subject. And I laid out an aspiration. Whether or not we can achieve that or not, we'll try to. But it is not as easy as subject as some may think.

CHAKRABARTI: Indeed, 20 years later, Guantanamo Bay is still open and it has haunted and bedeviled every president for the past two decades.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA [Tape]: This first executive order that we are signing, by the authority vested in me as President ... by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America in order to effect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice, I hereby order.

CHAKRABARTI: President Barack Obama, January 22nd, 2009. In his first act as Commander in Chief, signing Executive Order 13492 to close Guantanamo Bay, the Obama administration was unable to keep that promise. Seven years later, February 2016, Obama presented yet another plan to Congress to finally close the prison.

PRES. OBAMA [Tape]: As president, I have spent countless hours dealing with this. I do not exaggerate about that. Our closest allies raise it with me continually. They often raise specific cases of detainees repeatedly. I don't want to pass this problem on to the next president, whoever it is. And if as a nation, we don't deal with this now, when will we deal with it? Are we going to let this linger on for another 15 years? Another 20 years? Another 30 years?

CHAKRABARTI: Obama left office, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay remained open. On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump promised to keep Gitmo open. And he did. Here he is in his 2018 State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP [Tape]: So today, I'm keeping another promise. I just signed prior to walking in an order directing Secretary Mattis, who is doing a great job. Thank you. To reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay.

CHAKRABARTI: However, if not the moral cost, it was the prison's economic cost that troubled the Trump administration. By 2019, Trump said it was, quote, crazy that the U.S. spends $13 million a year on each detainee held at Guantanamo. I think it's crazy, Trump said. It costs a fortune to operate. I think it's crazy.

And yet Guantanamo remained open, as it does today under President Joe Biden. At a Democratic debate in 2020, then candidate Biden was asked why President Obama and he, as vice president, hadn't closed the prison.

JOE BIDEN [Tape]: You have to have congressional authority to do it. They've kept it open. And the fact is that we, in fact, think it's the greatest. It is an advertisement for creating terror.

CHAKRABARTI: However, now under the Biden administration, it's not clear whether closing Guantanamo Bay is a high priority for the president. So four presidents. 20 years. Today, we're going to talk about the moral, political and legal legacy of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay that is still there, still holding about 40 prisoners, still costing money. Still a stain on the U.S. reputation. And we'll begin with Marine Corps Brigadier General Michael Lehnert. He was the man ordered to build the detention center in January of 2002. He retired in 2009 with the rank of major general, and he joins us from Traverse City, Michigan. Major General Lehnert, welcome to On Point.

MICHAEL LEHNERT: Hello, Meghna. It's good to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you first tell us when you received the orders to build the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay? Tell us that story.

LEHNERT: Absolutely. It was the afternoon of Friday, January 4th, that we received a deployment order at my Marine Corps Command, second Force Service Support Group at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. We were expecting that some type of order like that might come. Secretary Rumsfeld tended to sign most deployment orders on a Friday.

That order directed me to form a joint task force with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen deployed at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, build 100 cells capable of holding the detainees and be prepared to receive them in 96 hours of receipt of the deployment order. We completed the cells in 87 hours. I probably got the job because I'd commanded the Cuban and Haitian migrant camps earlier in Guantanamo in 1995.

In addition, additionally, the unit that I commanded was one of the few that could respond in the timeline required by the administration. The Army actually has the responsibility for running prisoner of war camps. But I was told that they were not going to be able to get there in the timeframe the administration wanted. I was told to plan on coming home in 60 days. In fact, we were at Guantanamo for 98, when I turned over command to an Army joint task force.

CHAKRABARTI:  96 hours. Well, the first prisoners arrived soon after the prison was constructed. Can you tell us about them?

LEHNERT: I sure can. The first detainees arrived on January the 11th, and there were 20 of them. They arrived in a C-17 after flying nonstop from Afghanistan and doing mid-air refueling. I am told that the flight normally takes about 22 hours. As you said earlier, they'd been described by the Pentagon, as the worst of the worst. Carol Rosenberg, who you're going to hear from later, was witness to that first detainee transfer. So the detainees were taken from the plane. They were dressed in the heavy padded jumpsuits. They'd been manacled. They wore goggles and headsets.

Most who arrived were dehydrated, disoriented and scared. They hadn't been told where they were. They left winter in Afghanistan. They found themselves in the tropical climate. We loaded the first detainees into two school busses. The windows were blacked out and lay with the guards who had met. The plane left the airfield, which is on the other side of Guantanamo Bay. So the busses had to be ferried across to the mainland and to the detention facility at X-Ray. X-Ray was the site selected because it had concrete, hardstand, water and electrical drops. But by any standard it was the wrong place to put them. But the timeframe of the climate order left us no other option.

CHAKRABARTI: You're retired now, General, so can you tell me honestly, what did you think in those first days as the first prisoners arrived in the manner that they did, as you described?

LEHNERT: Well, you know, of course, I had been told, as had everybody else, that these were the worst of the worst. When they arrived, though, I was actually already thinking about how we had to conduct ourselves. And I wasn't getting a lot of guidance from the Pentagon or the administration. I resolved that we would follow the Geneva Conventions.

I was told at the time that I would be guided by them. I decided to follow them. And there were a couple of things that we couldn't do because it was not practical to do so. I mean, you don't pay the detainees as the Geneva Conventions require and a couple of other issues that that are in the Geneva Conventions. But I stipulated that in every case, if we did not follow them, it had to be my decision and not somebody beneath me.

CHAKRABARTI: I want to come back in a few minutes and talk to you more about that because, of course, as we know in the months and years following the opening of Guantanamo Bay, of the detention facility, there was, you know, the revelations of the torture that went on there. You left, though, after what's a little more than three months. You handed over command of the detention facility, right?

LEHNERT: Yeah, that's correct. And the mission I received was detention, not interrogation. Now, about halfway through my deployment, another unit was sent down with the responsibility for interrogation. ... My job was to detain them and treat them humanely. The job of the other force, of course, was to get information. As you will recall, that there was a great deal of belief that there were these individuals represented in intelligence gold mine.

CHAKRABARTI: General, we're going to talk a lot more after a quick break. But I want to ask you one quick thing. If you had to describe how you feel in one word about the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still there today. What would that word be?

LEHNERT: Regret.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Retired Major General Michael Lehnert supervised the construction of the detention camp at Gitmo in January 2002. He ran the facility for three months. And General Michael Lehnert, we're going to hear a little bit more from you in a moment, but I just want to now turn to someone who was imprisoned at Guantanamo. Moazzam Begg joins us from Birmingham, England. He spent two years as a detainee there from 2003 to 2005. Today, he's outreach director at the nonprofit group CAGE, which advocates for the rule of law.

MOAZZAM BEGG: Hello, Meghna, and thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: I actually want to start with the question that I ended the previous segment with, with General Lehnert. What is the one word you would use when you think about the fact that Guantanamo is still there today?

BEGG: Disbelief.

CHAKRABARTI: And your disbelief is informed by your personal experience there, so can you tell us about how you were first taken and why you were first taken to Guantanamo in 2003.

BEGG: Yeah. I had been held in the Bagram detention facility. Prior to that, I'd been captured or taken from my home in Pakistan in 2002. ... In front of my wife and children, I was abducted at gunpoint and taken hooded and shackled without any access to any legal recourse, without any uniformed or identified police officers taking me. And I was handed over shortly after that by Pakistani authorities to the U.S. military. And then taken to Kandahar, where I was processed like all the other prisoners. We were stripped naked, beaten and spat upon. Our photographs taken in this way, and then taken shivering naked into tents where I was interrogated by members of the FBI, by military intelligence, by CIA. And then held, as I said, in Kandahar for about six weeks, and then in Bagram for about 11 months before being sent to Guantanamo.

In Bagram, I saw two prisoners beaten to death by U.S. soldiers, including one who had his hands tied to the top of a cage and was repeatedly beaten and punched. I was subjected the sounds of a woman screaming in one of the cells that I was led to believe was my wife being tortured, while they waved pictures of my children in front of me. So by the end of being held in Bagram, in a situation atmosphere like that, I was actually looking forward to going to Guantanamo.

And I don't say that with any great relish. Because I understood that Guantanamo was a place where the law did not apply, and that had been chosen precisely because the law didn't apply there. But whatever movement was going to happen for me from Bagram, even if it meant Guantanamo, was going to be better. And so I woke up in Guantanamo in an 8-by-6-foot cell, after being drugged. Because the journey was so painful with my eyes, my ears, my face covered and shackled to a chair for almost 30 odd hours, I begged for a sedative. And so when I arrived in Guantanamo, I was in a daze. And what I remember is just literally being washed down with a hose and a sponge with a stick at the end of it. And then being taken off into this cell, which became my home for the next two years.

CHAKRABARTI: I suppose some listeners might be wondering why you were even taken into custody in Pakistan. If I understand correctly, Moazzam, you had been in Afghanistan with your wife in 2000, building a school. So you actually had been in Afghanistan, but in 2002 when you were arrested, you were back in Pakistan.

BEGG: Correct. Yes. So I'd gone in 2001 with my wife and my kids. We were continuing a project that I'd begun from the UK, to build a school in Kabul for girls. And it must be said this was at the time of the Taliban. So it's something that I wanted to be part of. And I remained there until the U.S. invasion and evacuated under those bombs and made it to Pakistan, took up residence there. And it was from there that I was kidnaped. The answer as to why me? There are two reasons. One is that the United States offered bounty money. They dropped like, as Donald Rumsfeld said, like snowflakes in December in Chicago, offering bounties of up to 5,000 dollars for each foreign person, which is what happened in a large number of cases. And the other part was false and flawed intelligence offered by British intelligence to the Americans to say that I was connected to Al Qaida, which I was not. But of course, that all became clear in Guantanamo after I was released.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, to be clear, there have been and are even to this day, some detainees at Guantanamo who do have and did have known ties to terrorist groups. But they were obviously not all of the detainees. But I don't want to put forth the notion that 100% of the people who were sent to Guantanamo had no ties to terrorism. Moazzam, you are one of those people who were innocent. So though, can you tell us more about how you were treated during your two years of imprisonment there?

BEGG: Well, the majority of my time was spent in Camp Echo, which was maximum-security solitary confinement, and it varied from place to place and time to time over years. So in the beginning, I was allowed out just for half an hour, three times a week. Completely otherwise, the rest of the time, 23.5 hours or 24 hours was spent entirely inside the cell. I was dealt with as somebody that's regarded as high value. So when I was taken out of my cell on the rare occasion and into what's known as the recreation yard, which is about 15-by-15-foot covered with chain link fence, there had to be an entire process of guards with guns, infantry patrols, the military working dog as they called it, all being called just because I was being taken out into this kind of recreation area.

Shortly after this, people started to realize, I think even those in charge, that this is a ridiculous process. Much of this was happening under the watch of General Jeffrey Miller. And for those who don't know, General Miller, he helped to implement the enhanced interrogation programs here, but then went on to what's known as to Guantanamo-ize the detention process in Abu Ghraib. And of course, those types of abuses now become world renowned. But for me, having spent the majority of my time in solitary confinement, I didn't get to mix with many of the other prisoners up until the last few months when I was put on in Papa Block. With people like, for example, Osama bin Laden's driver, Osama bin Laden's cook, Osama bin Laden's media man and a couple of others who all ended up except for one, going home despite their connection to bin Laden.

And so to answer the question about who was innocent and who was guilty really in any free society, it would be a law, a court of law that is transparent, that determines that. And after all, the United States has one of those systems built upon the system that was taken from the United Kingdom. If you look at Magna Carta and habeas corpus and all these things that have been mentioned. So it wasn't for lack of having a system, it was that the system was corrupt right from the beginning and remains that way with the military commissions process. After 20 years, not a single person has been convicted for the reason why Guantanamo was set up, and that was to catch those involved in perpetrating 9/11.

CHAKRABARTI: Moazzam, hang on here for just a second. Because I'd like to turn back to General Lehnert. General, you heard Moazzam talk about the enhanced interrogation techniques, as they were referred to in the Bush administration. I mean, subsequently, many people in the United States and internationally would just call it torture. You had mentioned earlier that you decided to stay within the rules of the Geneva Conventions. Does that mean that you were receiving pressure even in those first early months of Guantanamo being open? Were you receiving pressure from the Bush administration to engage in those enhanced interrogation techniques?

GEN. MICHAEL LEHNERT: I was receiving some pressure at that time. No, they had not yet developed the concept, I think fully or at least presented it to those who would be expected to execute it. I think the administration decided since I was going home just to wait me out, and that's what happened.

CHAKRABARTI: What are you thinking? What's going through your mind, general? As you heard Moazzam tell you, this is just like the surface of his story of his experience in Guantanamo.

LEHNERTYeah, I think about the lost opportunity that America had. After 9/11, we had both the sympathy and the cooperation of most of the international community, and we squandered it. You know, Moazzam mentioned the bounties that were being paid for so-called bad guys. I can't think of a worse way to figure out who actually is against us. And what we did was we actually gave, in my view, aid and comfort to the enemy by our own actions. You know, if the objective of terrorism is to change who we are as a nation, by any objective standard, they succeeded.

CHAKRABARTI: I actually don't know if the two of you, have you spoken together before?

LEHNERT: I believe there was one point where ... correct me if I am wrong, but I was giving a lecture at the university in the Puerto Rico. And I believe you came on at that time. Is that accurate or was it some other gentleman?

BEGG: I think that's right. And if I may, Meghna. I just want to say that last night I was sitting with somebody that Mike knows very well. And that person's name is Shaker Aamer, detainee 239. And he told me a story that really I found extremely moving, and one that I didn't know before. And that is that during the time that he was there with the early prisoners, Major General Mike Lehnert was, of course, in charge. He came and spoke to the prisoners and treated them with a great deal of decency. So the first thing Shaker said ... and some other prisoners I spoke to when I told them I'll be speaking with you today, was to say that please send him our warmest regards. Because we will never forget the way in which he treated us with great dignity and humanity. And Shaker related to me the story that Major General Mike came and announced to him or explained to him after he'd distributed sweets to all the other prisoners, Shaker asked prior to this, I'd like to know what has happened to my wife and children. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they in prison? What's happening to them? And so he actually made a call to his family and brought back the news to Shaker that you have had a son born whilst you're in custody.

And on the occasion of this birth, he distributed sweets to all the prisoners before going to Shaker, sitting on the floor in the dust, taking off his hat and handing these sweets over and giving this news to him. This act Shaker has never forgotten. Many of the prisoners have never forgotten, and this act is one of the reasons, there are many others, that all the prisoners that do not hate the United States of America. And so I just wanted to convey that. And it's something that when I heard, I was moved almost to tears.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, Moazzam and General Lehnert, I have to say for me, as an American citizen, having both of you on together on this show,  it feels surreal. Remarkable. You know, the man who under orders built this facility and a man who was imprisoned in it? And at the same time, I also am just imbued with the sense that we as a nation here in the United States, are definitely wanting to forget what has been going on there for 20 continuous years now. And so I just want to hear from both of you. And Moazzam, I'll start with you. What does it cost? What does it continue to cost the United States as the nation turns its back on Guantanamo, but keeps it open?

BEGG: You know, one of the first things I did when I came back from Guantanamo is I made an appeal to some hostage takers in Iraq who had dressed captives, Americans and Britons in orange jumpsuits and threatened to execute them. They did it using that kind of imagery of Guantanamo and the orange jumpsuits. The greatest irony I've seen at the moment is, again, I tried to make appeals to those ISIS hostage takers who captures British and American, again, journalists and aid workers and dressed them in orange jumpsuits, waterboarded them. Crucially, that's an important thing, and then executed them. Ironically, they're now being facing charges for war crimes and crimes in the United States, where they've been extradited to including waterboarding their captives. There are prisoners in Guantanamo still like Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who were waterboarded a multitude of times.

We've made films in Hollywood about them. There's award-winning films made by leading actors and actresses that portray what took place in the report to the torture report. And yet still, unbelievably, for these crimes, nobody's been held to account. The United States has admitted that these crimes took place. Guantanamo remains open. ... One of the things I would say is that it is a bipartisan project. Guantanamo has been overseen by Democrat and by Republican. It's been overseen by a Black president and white presidents. It's been overseen by East Coasters and West Coasters. And it is wholly American, as far as the rest of the world thinks. We, as the prisoners there, none of us, including me, the majority had never been to America. And the only thing we've ever seen of America was that display, whether it is in Bagram, Guantanamo or elsewhere. Of these American soldiers acting out what they've been told against us, that we are the worst of the worst. But what we saw was among the worst of the worst, and for that to be changed is going to require a generation.

CHAKRABARTI: General Lehnert, what is it costing the U.S.?

LEHNERT: I'll keep it short. It's cost us our moral authority as world leaders. Not just Guantanamo, but torture anywhere. Torture is wrong. You can't dress it up with words like enhanced interrogation techniques. And the information that we received from those interviews, as they like to say, was questionable at best. There's a possibility we received some information, but frankly, it was, How do you pick out the actionable intelligence that you receive from everything else that somebody will tell you just because they want the pain to stop?

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Joining me now is Carol Rosenberg. She covers Guantanamo Bay for the New York Times and before that, for The Miami Herald. She has been reporting on the detention facility there ever since the camp was opened 20 years ago in January. And over those 20 years, she stayed at Guantanamo Bay for more than 1,500 nights. Welcome to On Point, Carol.

CAROL ROSENBERG: Thank you, Meghna. Nice to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, I had asked both the general and Moazzam the one word that comes to mind when thinking of the fact that Guantanamo Bay is still open. And I'd like to ask the same of you. What is that one word for you?

ROSENBERG: I'm sorry to say, the answer is unsurprised. What has gone on in the last 20 years across these four administrations has not made it possible to close it. ... First of all, it was conceived as essentially a prisoner of war camp in a forever war, for which there is no one on the other side to surrender. For which there's no actual P.O.W.s on the other side to exchange.

And so, when you take prisoners, and you move them halfway around the world and you put them in cages, and then ultimately in these prisons that look like copies of American prisons, in a war that you've declared is in perpetuity, it's very difficult to figure out how to exit that war. I mean, we've left Afghanistan and we still have prisoners at Guantanamo who were brought there from Afghanistan.

CHAKRABARTI: And, you know, we've barely touched on the legal element here. I just made quick mention of it at the top. There are still trials or judicial proceedings going on in Guantanamo right now with some of the, what, the 39 remaining detainees. Can you tell us a little bit about what's happening there at the moment?

ROSENBERG: And six of those men on trial are on trial for their lives. These are death penalty proceedings and a military commission, which is a court that was created by Congress after 9/11 to try people at Guantanamo Bay. People in particular who were brought to the military prison from years in the black sites of the CIA. There's five men who are accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks. Best known is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I think people may remember the captured photo of him rousted from his bed in Pakistan.

There's another man there who's in a capital case named Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, who's a Saudi who's accused of plotting the USS Cole attack. You know, the United States has done a series of drone hits through the years of people they said were plotters of the USS Cole or masterminds of the USS Cole attacks. And he's the one they captured, and he has a trial ongoing. These trials have been going since — I shouldn't say trials, because they aren't before the juries. They're still at the level of pretrial litigation in front of a military judge since 2011 and 2012.

You make up a new court. You bring in people from four and three years in the black sites where they were denied lawyers, access to the Red Cross, subjected to torture by all measures. And then you try to put them on trial. You spend years in pretrial proceedings figuring out what, if any, evidence is usable at that trial and what the consequences can be. Because of the death penalty trials, they've got some of the best American paid U.S. criminal defense lawyers, and they are fighting for every scrap of evidence in order to argue, if they are convicted, that the United States does not have the moral authority to execute them. And so it's gone on for a decade.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, the irony there is biting, especially in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as you pointed out. I mean, ostensibly he's on trial for his role in 9/11. But it sounds like you're what you're saying is that the U.S., it's essentially itself on trial for all of the torture and the black sites as has been revealed in these pretrial hearings.

ROSENBERG: So, you know, I mean, the 9/11 families who are brought down, there's a small pool of relatives of people who were killed on that day, who signed up to travel to Guantanamo and watch these pretrial proceedings. And it's extremely painful for them. You know, this man, after he was taken into CIA custody and waterboarded. And, you know, these enhanced interrogation techniques, as they are called, basically, you know, break down a human being. Some would argue, say whatever their captors want them to hear.

So after he was captured, he actually boasted that he plotted 9/11 from A to Z, evidence that probably can't be admitted at the trial. And so it is painful to them that this man is still in pretrial proceedings. And what I say to them, and it's not reassuring, it's not comforting, is that the pretrial is the defendant's trial. It's the place where they try to get the evidence and create the best conditions for the victim's trial, which is when a jury is brought in and we learn about what happened on 9/11, and what these men did or didn't do to further that attack by 19 hijackers that killed 2,976 people in four crashed airplanes on September 11th, 2001.

And I have to say this. Because to some of your listeners, 9/11 is a distant memory, but not for the family members. And so what's going on is in a sense, yes, the CIA is on trial now while ... whole weeks go by down there. We've had dozens of weeks of pretrial sessions, whole weeks go by down there. ... Conversations about the CIA and nothing about what happened on 9/11 at the 911 proceeding.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is also actually the perfect example of the conundrum the U.S. finds itself in, even amongst those politicians who want to close the detention facility there. Because, I mean, over the past 20 years, repeatedly, one of the problems is what to do with the remaining detainees or even for the ones who are determined to be innocent of any wrongdoing, where would they go? I mean, that problem hasn't been solved yet, Carol, has it?

ROSENBERG: It has not. So what it could have [been], if they had picked up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, when they captured him in Pakistan and took him to New York City and charged him with being, you know, the instigator mastermind, what have you, of the September 11th attacks. He would likely been long ago convicted and probably serving life in the supermax in Florence, Colorado, where his nephew is serving life for plotting the first World Trade Center attack.

There's still some desire in many quarters of Americans that this would remain a death penalty case. And there's a question about whether or not, you know, he could have actually been, you know, suffered the ultimate sentence by now. But they made a decision. They took him to the black sites, they waterboarded him and they brought him to Guantanamo. But in terms of where do these men go? You know, Congress decided that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed must stay at Guantanamo. It's in the legislation.

They said that under no circumstances can money be used from the U.S. taxpayers to build, try to do anything actually on U.S. soil for any of the detainees who were there. But they specifically mentioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

... You know, closing Guantanamo was aspirational for President Bush. He thought we shouldn't have to do this, but did nothing to close it. It was intentional. It was an intent of President Obama as a constitutional law expert offended him that we would hold people without trial, without charge and tried to close it. We know that Trump, President Trump was an obstacle. He wanted to load it up with bad dudes and didn't. But we don't really know whether where President Biden is on the spectrum of aspirational versus intentional. There are 18 or 19 men down there among the 39 prisoners who are cleared for transfer with security assurances. And they haven't done it. They haven't.

You know, there are probably some deals being picked up in the background, getting countries to take them in for rehab and resettlement. But there's no public face of that aspiration or intention to close the detention center. But closing Guantanamo means for some people, moving Guantanamo, picking up some of those people, certainly those who are charged and probably those who are convicted and moving them to a detention facility in the United States. Yeah, ideally, it's convicts convicted of a crime at what court. Right now, they're using these military commissions, the post-9/11 court tribunals set up by the military with military panels.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, Carol, I appreciate the fact that you took us through the intentions of the four presidents who have overseen Guantanamo Bay, because, you know, to your point, Barack Obama made it a campaign promise and it was his first executive order. But, you know, seven years later, he was still unsuccessful in closing Guantanamo Bay. He pointed at Congress and basically said politics got in the way and Congress made it harder for the executive branch to close it down.

Well, now, under Joe Biden, at least for the next many months, you know, he has a majority in the House and a super slim majority in the Senate, but it's there. But to your point, it's still not clear how much of a priority of closing Guantanamo is for the Biden administration.

CHAKRABARTI: Carol, we've got 2 minutes left. I have two questions for you. First of all. Do you think it's going to happen under the Biden administration?

ROSENBERG: Hard to imagine, Meghna. They haven't done the things that they need to do in order for that to happen. Hard to imagine they would really need to persuade the Congress to lift the restrictions. And as people say, they haven't been willing to expend the political capital to get that done. Closing Guantanamo means moving people to the United States.

CHAKRABARTI: So it's easier to ignore it, in a sense. But I mean, it's still if not the moral cost, there's still the financial cost, the $13 million a year per detainee there. I mean, that matters to some people.

ROSENBERG: Not enough. I mean, I've been crunching the numbers and writing those reports for I don't want to say 20 years, because the transparency has come and gone. But, you know, I have to tell you, there are people who are very concerned and very interested in what Guantanamo is, what Guantanamo should be, and whether Guantanamo should be or should not be available to future administrations.

But that is the minority of Americans. Many, many Americans don't even realize that that detention centers, they're holding 39 detainees with a staff of 1,500 just at the prison, 1,500 soldiers and contractors, which is why it's so expensive. National Guardsmen every day down in Guantanamo Bay, with a place that's now harder to get to since COVID, and easy to ignore.

CHAKRABARTI: Americans might want to forget about it, but has the rest of the world forgotten about it?

ROSENBERG: Not at all. I mean, you can close your eyes and imagine men in orange jumpsuits on their knees and in a cage in shackles. And that's what the world sees and remembers about Guantanamo Bay. And they think it continues. And they're right. They don't look like that anymore. But two of the men in that picture are still there.

From The Reading List

The Independent: "After 9/11, I was sent to Guantanamo Bay. The truth about the war on terror is unrelentingly grim" — "The most notable thing about the 20th anniversary of 11 September is that, following two decades of the longest law enforcement and intelligence operation in US history, not a single person has been successfully tried and convicted for taking part in the attacks."

New York Times: "20 Years Later, the Story Behind the Guantánamo Photo That Won’t Go Away" — "Four months to the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, a photographer hoisted a camera above shiny new razor wire and took a picture of 20 prisoners on their knees in orange uniforms, manacled, masked and heads bowed."

This program aired on February 2, 2022.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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