Departure Of Guantanamo Head Means Detention Center May Not Close Anytime Soon

Jan 29, 2013
Originally published on February 4, 2013 1:29 pm
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For the past four years, Ambassador Daniel Fried has been working hard to keep a promise President Obama made on his first day in office: to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detention center is still open, but now it's Fried's office that is closing. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Karen Greenberg runs the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and she's invested a lot of energy in Guantanamo Bay Prison. On any given day, she can tell you exactly how many detainees are there: 166 today. And she can dive even deeper than that.

KAREN GREENBERG: Eighty-six individuals of that 166 has been cleared for release. Fifty-six of them are Yemenis.

SHAPIRO: Guantanamo has filled her life for more than a decade as suspected terrorists have been picked up from around the world, shipped to Cuba and shipped off again by the hundreds. To her, the closing of Ambassador Daniel Fried's office at the State Department feels like the end of a chapter.

GREENBERG: And I think that's probably the correct move. You know, this is the, you know, how does it end not with a bang but a whimper? This is an example of that kind of ending.

SHAPIRO: Guantanamo's prisoner population has shrunk by roughly a third under President Obama. And Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution says that's largely thanks to the work of Ambassador Fried.

BEN WITTES: When they set out to convince a whole lot of European countries to take a lot of Guantanamo detainees, I kind of snickered into my sleeve a little bit because, you know, who wants a bunch of Guantanamo detainees, right?

SHAPIRO: Fried used every tool in the diplomat's handbook: flattery, warnings, playing one country off against another.

WITTES: He logged a lot of miles and spent a huge amount of time with, you know, foreign governments and managed to convince a bunch to take a lot of people.

SHAPIRO: But after the first couple of years, the flood slowed to a trickle. Many of the detainees left can't go anywhere. For example, the U.S. refuses to send Yemenis home because Yemen is too unstable. Third countries won't take those prisoners, and they can't come to the United States because Congress won't let them. Lawmakers have put up one roadblock after another to keep the Guantanamo detainees in Cuba. Bobby Chesney at the University of Texas Law School says closing this office at the State Department just confirms what everyone's known for years.

BOBBY CHESNEY: The fact of the matter is that the project of shuttering Guantanamo has been dead in the water for a very long time, and that's been clear to anyone who's paying close attention to the issue.

SHAPIRO: The Obama administration insists that's not true. White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, quote, "The administration has made clear that closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is in the interest of our national security and is continuing its efforts to close it." But over the 12 years that Guantanamo has been open, some things have changed. No new prisoners have arrived in years, and its symbolic potency has diminished. This was a major national security speech President Obama delivered four years ago.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counterterrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaida recruit terrorists to its cause.

WITTES: It's kind of an old and stale symbol at this point.

SHAPIRO: Ben Wittes of Brookings and many other national security experts agree terrorists no longer focus on Guantanamo the way they once did.

WITTES: They've moved on to drone strikes and civilian casualties, which is a fresher and more significant day-to-day thumb-in-the-eye for some of the peoples that they are trying to appeal to.

SHAPIRO: In pop culture, the best representation of America's national security mindset today may be "Homeland" on Showtime. In a key plot point on that show, a drone strike becomes a terrorist recruiting tool. And in two seasons, Guantanamo Bay has not come up at all. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.