Government and Politics

Office of Homeland Security

What was the controversy about the Guantanamo detainees?

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military began holding terror suspects at a detention center at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (The U.S. Navy has occupied Guantanamo since the Spanish-American War, in 1898, paying an annual lease to Cuba.) The White House labeled the detainees “enemy combatants”; the controversy came when they were not charged with any crimes, yet they continued to be held.

The first detainees were transported to Guantanamo, or “Camp Gitmo,” in January 2002, after being captured in Afghanistan. But no charges were made against any detainees until more than two years later, in February 2004. American lawyers challenged the Bush administration policy at Guantanamo, saying that it was a violation of the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution. In January 2005 one district court judge agreed with the prosecution, saying that the Constitution applied to the prisoners: they could not be deprived of their liberty without due process of the law. The Bush administration immediately moved to appeal the ruling. Some in the international community also strongly criticized the U.S. government for holding the suspects. One of Britain’s most senior judges called the policy a “monstrous failure of justice.”

In response to the widespread criticism, the U.S. Defense Department considered making major changes to the tribunals set up to prosecute terror suspects at Guan-tanamo. The changes were to bring the tribunals in line with the judicial standards of U.S. court-martials.

But questions also arose about the treatment of the detainees and the methods used in interrogating them. Human rights groups made charges of abuses. In spring 2005 United Nations officials working in the area of war crimes were awaiting a visit to Guantanamo; the hold up was that they requested full access to the facilities and the prison population, conditions Washington was reluctant to allow. According to a February 2005 American Forces Information Service report, there were about 545 people from some 40 countries being held at the Guantanamo detention center at that time. The government also held terror suspects, some of them senior members of the terrorist network al Qaeda, in navy brigs in South Carolina, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and on navy vessels at sea.

Taliban and al Qaeda detainees kneel under the watchful eyes of U.S. military police at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 2002.

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