Guantanamo Bay at 10: A Debate About Military Detention

Two student readings provide a brief history of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, explore arguments for and against the facility, and examine the evolving debate about it during the Obama administration. Discussion questions follow


By Mark Engler


To the teacher:

January 11, 2012, marked the 10-year anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. government detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. The anniversary is serving as an occasion for protest and for renewed public debate. Proponents argue that Guantanamo is an essential part of America's defense against hostile foreign extremists. However, Guantanamo Bay has drawn intense criticism from human rights advocates in America and abroad who charge the U.S. government with violating international laws.

This lesson is divided into two readings. The first reading provides a brief history of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and explores arguments for and against the facility. The second reading looks more closely at how the debate about Guantanamo has evolved during the Obama administration. One of Barack Obama's most frequently repeated campaign promises was that he would close the facility if he was elected. Yet almost three years into his presidency, he has not done so. In fact, in December 2011, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which reaffirms the president's authority to indefinitely detain individuals suspected of terrorism and creates barriers to the closing Guantanamo. Discussion questions aimed at getting students to think critically about the Guantanamo facility and the debates that surround it follow each reading.


Student Reading 1

Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp: A Lightning Rod of Controversy

January 11, 2012 marked the 10-year anniversary of the creation of the U.S. government detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. The Guantanamo Bay facility was established under the Bush administration as a place to detain and interrogate prisoners captured as part of Bush's "global war on terror," including enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The facility's main compound consists of six detention camps, with a total of 612 units, and is operated by a joint task force of the U.S. military. In total, the complex has housed over 770 inmates. Currently 171 prisoners remain there.

Since opening, the base has been beset by criticism from human rights advocates in the U.S. and abroad. Former inmates as well as observers have spoken out about numerous instances of torture and other forms of abuse - both physical and psychological - at the camp. Critics have also denounced the generally poor living conditions at the camp. One detainee, Jumah al-Dossari, recounted his experiences both as a witness to and a victim of torture at Guantanamo Bay to Amnesty International in December of 2005. Al-Dossari stated:

They went to a detainee and put his head in the toilet. The toilets in Camp Delta are iron, Turkish-style toilets and then they flushed his head down the toilet until he almost died. They went to a detainee and started beating his head against the toilet rim until he lost consciousness and he could not see for more than 10 hours. He suffered facial spasms as a result. They went to a detainee when he was praying the maghrib [sunset] prayer and beat him severely... On that same day, they came and beat me. At that time, we were angry because the duty chief supervisor cursed Allah and banged on the doors of our cells and said, "Merry Christmas;" that was on Christmas day 2002. There were many, many attempts to gouge the eyes of the detainees and to hit them in their private parts. They would beat them when they were ill and would hit them on their injuries.

Such actions would normally represent a breach of the Third Geneva Convention, which regulates the treatment of prisoners of war. However, supporters of the Guantanamo detention facility argue that this convention does not apply to those captured in the "war on terror" because these "enemy combatants" are not part of any country's military, do not clearly identify themselves as soldiers, and, thus, are themselves in violation of the rules of war. As Jim Phillips of the conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation said in 2006:

"Everybody that is deemed to fall under the criteria for Geneva should be treated that way," Phillips says. "But some of these terrorists who are not recognized as soldiers don't deserve to be treated as soldiers. I think part of the question is: 'What is humiliating?' They would - may - argue that just being put in jail is humiliating, since they're doing the work of God, as they see it. If they're not deemed to qualify for Geneva-type treatment, I don't think they should be [given Geneva protections]."

One of the core principles of the U.S. system of justice is "due process": People who are arrested must be told the charges against them and have the right to answer to the charges in a fair trail. But at Guantanamo, detainees can and have been held indefinitely without a trial and even without charges. For instance, one detainee, Shaker Aamer, who was captured in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in the early stages of the war in 2001 and was transferred to Guantanamo in February of 2002 - just a month after it opened - still remains there today, without being charged and without a trial. 
(UK Independent)

In 2008, former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the "unlawful combatants" being held at Guantanamo aren't entitled to due process: "Once you go out and capture a bunch of terrorists, as we did in Afghanistan and elsewhere, then you've got to have some place to put them," he said. "If you bring them here to the U.S. and put them in our local court system, then they are entitled to all kinds of rights that we extend only to American citizens. Remember, these are unlawful combatants." He added, "Guantanamo has been very, very valuable. And I think [the Obama administration] will discover that trying to close it is a very hard proposition." (Reuters, 12/15/08)

But Guantanamo's opponents have denounced the facility on human rights grounds. Critics include Amnesty International, which in 2005 stated that "Guantanamo has become the gulag our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served in the Bush Administration, has also condemned the facility. Powell stated in 2007: "Essentially, we have shaken the belief the world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don't need it and it is causing us far more damage than any good we get for it." (Reuters, 6/10/07)

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. According to the reading, what are some of the primary arguments in support of the facility at Guantanamo Bay?

3. What are some of the major arguments about why practices at the Guantanamo Bay facility violate standards of international law and human rights?

4. Do you think prisoners captured as a part of the global war on terror should be protected under the Geneva Conventions? Should they have the same rights to due process as American citizens? Why or why not?

5. Now that the United States has ended active combat operations in Iraq, do you think the United States still needs a facility like Guantanamo Bay?


Student Reading 2:

Broken Promises: President Obama and Guantanamo

While on the campaign trail in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama joined the chorus of voices criticizing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Indeed, in his campaign stump speeches, Obama regularly vowed to the close the camp. Yet, three years into his presidency, the camp remains open.

On December 15, 2009, Obama issued a Presidential memorandum calling for the facility to be closed and ordering the prisoners to be transferred to Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. But Obama's plan quickly faced bipartisan opposition in Congress as well as legal challenges. Ultimately, the administration abandoned its plan.

Some commentators suggest that President Obama's failure to deliver on his promise has been due primarily to his style of leadership. Facing a legislature that is hostile to his aims, they argue, the president has sought compromise instead of being firm in his demands. As Peter Finn and Anne E. Kornblut wrote for theWashington Post in April 2011:

For more than two years, the White House's plans had been undermined by political miscalculations, confusion and timidity in the face of mounting congressional opposition, according to some inside the administration as well as on Capitol Hill. Indeed, the failed effort to close Guantanamo was reflective of the aspects of Obama's leadership style that continue to distress his liberal base - a willingness to allow room for compromise and a passivity that at times permits opponents to set the agenda.

But others contend that while Obama has paid lip service to closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay, he is not opposed to some of its basic features. As Glenn Greenwald of wrote:

It is true that Congress - with the overwhelming support of both parties - has enacted several measures making it much more difficult, indeed impossible, to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. But long before that ever happened, Obama made clear that he wanted to continue the twin defining pillars of the Bush detention regime: namely, (1) indefinite, charge-free detention and (2) military commissions (for those lucky enough to be charged with something). Obama never had a plan for "closing Guantanamo" in any meaningful sense; the most he sought to do was to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where its defining injustices would endure.

On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2012. Among other things, the bill affirms the president's authority to indefinitely detain enemy combatants captured in the "war on terror." The bill also gives the government the power to detain American citizens without trial. Although Obama has stated he will not exercise this power, advocates of civil liberties have expressed alarm. Baher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was interviewed by

"It has no real geographical limitation, it has no temporal limitation," [Azmy] said, summarizing key provisions in the NDAA. "It basically puts into law, into permanent law, the ability to indefinitely detain, outside of a constitutional justice system, individuals the president picks up anywhere in the world that the president thinks might have some connection to terrorism. The United States Congress, with the support of the president, has now put into law the possibility of indefinite detention, where the entire world, including the United States, is a battlefield."

The National Defense Authorization Act also creates barriers to closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay - making it unlikely that, even if President Obama wis reelected, he'll be able to follow through on his campaign promise during his first term. As Azmy said:

"[There are] really dangerous provisions here that would make it nearly impossible to close Guantanamo," Azmy explained. "Congress has forbidden from transferring or releasing any detainees from Guantanamo to their home countries or third countries willing to take them as refugees unless the Defense Department can meet this exceedingly onerous certification requirement. Basically, before anyone can be released, the Defense Department has to certify that the individual will not engage in any hostile acts when they are returned - something that the Defense Department cannot certify."

The 10-year anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay on January 11 sparked protest by opponents of the camp. A coalition of human rights groups held a national "Day of Action" in Washington, DC, featuring a solemn march of activists (dressed as prisoners in black hoods and orange jumpsuits) from the White House to the Supreme Court. The protesters aim to shine a public spotlight on this still-pressing human rights issue.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are some of the theories about why President Obama has not yet closed the Guantanamo Bay facility?

3. According to Constitutional lawyer Baher Azmy, what new powers does the National Defense Authorization Act give the U.S. federal government when it comes to people suspected of terrorism?

4. Do you think that the government should be able to detain U.S. citizens without trial if there is evidence connecting them to acts of terrorism? Or do you think that they should have the same rights as other Americans? Explain your position.

5. Human rights groups argue that abuses at Guantanamo Bay have damaged the United States' reputation in the international community. Do you think that the U.S. government should be concerned about its international reputation? Why or why not?

This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

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