Trump's Guantanamo Bay order may be largely symbolic, but it renews debate

Laura King, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- To many in and outside the United States, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has long been a blot on America's stated democratic ideals, a facility closely associated in the public mind with orange jumpsuits, waterboarding and hunger strikes.

Soon after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama declared he would shut down Guantanamo, although he didn't succeed in doing so. President Donald Trump, in his first State of the Union address, defiantly announced that the facility would remain open, in keeping with campaign pledges and an apparent determination to reverse as many of his predecessor's policies as possible.

Trump's announcement, codified in an executive order signed shortly before his address to Congress on Tuesday night, leaves open the question of what's next for the prison and those held there. Here's some background:

Question: How did Guantanamo come into being?

Answer: U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, at Cuba's southeastern tip, sits on land leased under the Cuban-American treaty of 1903. A detention camp was constructed there in stages after the Sept. 11 attacks to hold designated "enemy combatants" -- terrorism suspects captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan -- rather than bring them to the United States for trial. The first prisoners arrived in 2002, and since then more than 750 detainees, from teenagers to octogenarians, have passed through the facility, colloquially known as "Gitmo."

Q: Where did the Guantanamo inmates come from?

A: Only about 5 percent were captured on the battlefield. Many others were caught by bounty hunters, or handed over to U.S. forces by rival warlords or simply neighbors with a grudge. Opponents of the Guantanamo detentions said important figures were far outweighed by ordinary foot soldiers. Probably the best known detainee is accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Q: How many prisoners are there now?

A: With no new arrivals in a decade, the facility's population has dwindled to 41. When Trump assumed office, five of those had been cleared for release. Twenty-three have not been charged with any crime, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The prison costs more than $440 million annually to operate, working out to a cost of nearly $11 million per detainee.

Q: Why is the facility controversial?


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