On 12 February, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked by a reporter whether the new Joe Biden administration intends to shut down the notorious Guantanamo Bay Prison by the end of the US president's first term in office. Her non-committal answer was, "That's certainly our goal and our intention."
Psaki may have sounded reassuring that the untold suffering experienced by hundreds of men in this American gulag — many of whom were surely innocent — would finally be coming to an end. However, considering the history of Guantanamo and the trail of broken promises by the Barack Obama administration, the latest "goal and intention" is hardly encouraging.
Compare the new language with that of Obama's impassioned diatribes about humanity, justice and American values, which he utilised whenever he spoke of Guantanamo. "Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," Obama said in a speech at the National Defence University in May 2013.
Enamoured with his every word, Obama's audience applauded enthusiastically, but when he delivered that particular speech, he was serving his second term in office. He had already had ample time and opportunity to shut down the prison which operates with no international monitoring and entirely outside the realms of international and US laws.
Obama is likely to be remembered for his words, not his actions. Not only did he fail to shut down the prison which was erected by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in 2002, but the Guantanamo industry also continued to thrive during his time in the White House. For example, in his speech, Obama made reference to the high cost of "a hundred and fifty million dollars each year to imprison 166 people." According to the New Yorker in 2016, Guantanamo's budget had grown to "$445 million" while Obama was in office.
Yet, as the budget grew by leaps and bounds, the number of Guantanamo prisoners dwindled. There are now just 40 prisoners in the massive edifice of metal, concrete and barbed wire built within a US naval base at the eastern tip of Cuba on land 'leased' by the US in 1903.
It is easy to conclude that the US government keeps the prison open only to avoid international accountability and, arguably, to extract information by torture, an act that is inconsistent with American law. But this cannot be right. The wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal under international law, but that didn't stop the US and its allies from savagely invading, humiliating and torturing entire populations with no regard whatsoever to legal or moral arguments.
Moreover, Guantanamo is merely one of many American-run prisons and detention centres operating around the world according to the most ruthless tactics and no rule book. The tragedy of Abu Ghraib, a US military detention centre in Baghdad, only became famous when direct evidence of the degrading and incredibly violent conduct that was taking place within its walls was produced and publicised. Furthermore, many US officials and members of Congress at the time used the Abu Ghraib scandal in 2004 as an opportunity to whitewash and rebrand American crimes elsewhere and to present the misconduct within the prison as if it was an isolated incident involving "a few bad apples".
This argument was made by George W Bush. It was more or less the same logic utilised by Obama when he championed the closure of Guantanamo. Indeed, both presidents insisted that neither Abu Ghraib nor Guantanamo should be made out to represent what America is really all about.
"Is this who we are?" asked Obama passionately as he made the case for the closure of Guantanamo, speaking as if he was a human rights advocate rather than the Commander-in-Chief with the authority to shut down the entire facility immediately. The truth is that the Abu Ghraib tortures were not "a few bad apples" and Guantanamo is, indeed, a microcosm of exactly what the US is, or has become.
From Bagram in Afghanistan, to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, to the many "floating prisons" — news of which was leaked by US media in 2014 — the US government continues to make a mockery of international and humanitarian laws. Many American officials who genuinely advocate the closure of Guantanamo refuse to acknowledge that the prison is a symbol of their country's intransigence, and refuse to accept that, like any other country in the world, it is accountable to international law.
This lack of accountability has exceeded the US government's insistence on "acting alone" and launching wars without international mandates. One US administration after another has also made it clear that, under no circumstances, would they allow American citizens accused of war crimes to be investigated, let alone stand trial, before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The message here is that even America's "few bad apples" can potentially walk free, regardless of the heinousness of their crimes.
Just months after the Trump administration imposed punitive sanctions on ICC judges for having the audacity to look into possible investigations of US crimes in Afghanistan, it freed the convicted criminals who carried out horrific crimes in Iraq. On 22 December, Trump pardoned four American mercenaries from the private military company Blackwater. These convicted murderers were involved in the killing of 14 civilians, including two children, in Baghdad in 2007.
What became known as the "Nisour Square massacre" was another example of whitewashing, as government officials and mainstream media insisted that the massacre was an isolated episode, even while expressing outrage at the unlawful killing. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, mostly civilians, were killed as a result of the US invasion seems irrelevant in America's skewed logic as it pursues its never-ending "war on terror".
Whether Biden fulfils his promise to shut down Guantanamo or not, little will change if the US remains committed in its contempt for international law and to its undeserved view of itself as a country that exists above the universal rights of everyone else.
That said, Guantanamo on its own is a crime against humanity and there can never be any rational explanation or justification for holding hundreds of people indefinitely, without trial, without due process, without international observers and without ever seeing their families and loved ones. The explanation often offered by the pro-Guantanamo pundits is that the prison inmates are dangerous men. If that was indeed the case, why were these supposed criminals not allowed to have their day in court?
According to a report by Amnesty International published in May last year, of the 779 men who were taken to the prison, "only seven have been convicted". Worse, five of them were convicted "as a result of pre-trial agreements under which they pleaded guilty, in return for the possibility of release from the base." According to the rights group, such a trial by military commission "did not meet fair trial standards".
In other words, Guantanamo is — and has always been — a fraudulent operation with no real inclination to hold criminals and terrorists to account and prevent further crimes. Guantanamo is an industry, and a lucrative one. In many ways, it is similar to the American prison military complex, ironically dubbed the "criminal justice system". Referring to the unjust "justice system", Human Rights Watch derided the US for having "the largest reported prison population in the world".
"The (US) criminal justice system — from policing and prosecution, through to punishment — is plagued with injustices like racial disparities, excessively harsh sentencing and drug and immigration policies that improperly emphasise criminalisation," stated HRW on its website.
The above can also be considered an answer to Obama's rhetorical question, "Is this who we are?" Yes sir, Mr President, this is precisely who you are.
While offering the world's most miserable detention conditions to hundreds of potentially innocent men, Guantanamo also offers career opportunities, military perks and honours, and a seemingly endless budget for a small army to guard only a few shackled, gaunt-looking men in a foreign land.
Even if Biden is able to overcome pressure from the military, the CIA and Congress and succeeds in shutting Guantanamo down, justice will still be absent, not only because of the numerous lives that are forever shattered, but also because America still refuses to learn from its mistakes. Guantanamo Bay Prison is indeed America's enduring shame.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.