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It Costs $72 Million a Year to Hold Cleared Prisoners at Guantánamo


Last week, the exorbitant expense of maintaining the Bush administrations war on terror prison at Guantánamo was revealed in the Miami Herald, where Carol Rosenberg explained that Congress provided $139million to operate the prison last year. With 171 prisoners still held, that works out to $812,865 per prisoner nearly 30times as much as it costs to keep a prisoner in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, where the cost per prisoner is $28,284 a year.

In a detailed explanation of the expensive and inefficient system at Guantánamo, retired Army Brig. Gen.Greg Zanetti, who was the prisons deputy commander in 2008, said, Its a slow-motion Berlin Airlift thats been going on for 10 years. While stationed at Guantnamo, the Herald noted, he wrote a secret study that compared the operation to Alcatraz, noting that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had closed it in 1963 because it was too expensive.

Zanetti, who is now a Seattle-based money manager, pointed out that everything from paper clips to bulldozers has to be flown in or brought in by boat, and argued that the cost of running the prison deserves a cost-benefit analysis. He told Rosenberg, What complicates the overall command further is you have the lawyers, interrogators, and guards all operating under separate budgets and command structures. Its like combining the corporate cultures and budgets of Goldman, Apple, and Coke. Business schools would have a field day dissecting the structure of Guantánamo.

Zanettis analysis certainly ought to provide an opportunity for critics of Guantánamo both in the administration and in Congress to fight back against the prisons cheerleaders, who have pushed hard to keep the prison open and to thwart Barack Obamas poorly conceived promise to close the prison within a year.

What was not specifically mentioned in the analysis, however, and what the American people might be interested to know when judging whether it is acceptable to be spending more than $800,000 a head to keep 171 prisoners at Guantánamo, was that although the government intends to try (or has tried) 36 of them and has decided to hold 46 others without charge or trial, it does not wish to detain 89 others.

Two years ago, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, comprising career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies, reviewed the files of all the prisoners to work out what to do with them and concluded that 89 of the 171 remaining prisoners should be released.

Last year, the cost of holding those 89 prisoners was $72,345,029.

Anyone looking to save money, therefore, might wish to examine why it is that those 89 men are still being held. The answers do not reflect well on either the administration or Congress. Although all of those prisoners were approved for transfer out of Guantánamo by the Task Force, 31 of them are still being held either because they face the risk of torture in their home countries, so it is not safe for them to be repatriated, or because Congress has blocked their release. The remaining 58 are Yemenis, whose release has also been blocked by the president and by Congress.

The details of the 31 men, who are from a variety of countries, are not entirely clear because the administration has not publicly identified who has been approved for transfer. However, it is clear that the group includes the last five Uighur’s (Muslims from Chinas Xinjiang province) who won their habeas corpus petitions more than three years ago in October 2008.

Since then 12 other Uighur’s have been released in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland but the five remain because they refused the new homes they were offered, fearing that they would not be safe from the long reach of the Chinese government. No other country has offered to take them, and Obama, his Justice Department, Congress, and the Supreme Court have all made it clear that they have no desire to offer them or any other refugee in Guantánamo a home in the United States, the country that wrongly imprisoned them in the first place.

Some of the remaining prisoners are from countries with dubious human-rights records Syria, for example. Others are almost certainly victims of a restriction included by Congress as part of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, in which, as the Washington Post explained in an article last week, lawmakers demanded that the defense secretary certify that he would ensure that a freed individual cannot engage or re-engage in any terrorist activity. As Jeh Johnson, the Pentagons general counsel, explained in a speech last month at the Heritage Foundation, This provision is onerous and near impossible to satisfy.

The 58 Yemenis are subjected both to the problems highlighted by Jeh Johnson and to other problems as well. Although 28 of them could have been sent home with seven of their compatriots the week before Christmas in 2009, a failed attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb in his underwear derailed plans for their release, apparently indefinitely.

In response to an uproar following a revelation that the man in question, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, Obama bowed to pressure and issued a moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis from Guantánamo. There is no sign that it will be dropped, even though some of the men approved for transfer by Obamas Task Force were first approved for release from Guantánamo by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2004, and even though blanket bans of this sort are nothing less than guilt by nationality.

For the remaining 30 Yemenis, a further obstacle to their release is that, although they too were approved for transfer, the Task Force created a special category for them, declaring that they should be held in conditional detention at Guantánamo until the security situation in Yemen improved.

With such obstacles, it is uncertain when any of these 89 prisoners will be released. In the meantime, as American justice groans under the burden of layers of dubious impositions designed to prevent the release of any of them whether innocent, cleared by a court, or cleared by Bush’s military review boards seven years ago Americas coffers are also suffering. Not only did it cost $72million to hold them last year; it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to hold them for nearly 10 years and billions of dollars in total to hold them and hundreds of other prisoners who have already been released.

On the other hand, if you prefer to look to the future rather than the past, as Obama says he does, then you may wish to reflect on the billions of dollars that will be spent holding these men in future as the years turn into decades, and they begin to die of old age until someone in authority finds a way to bring this dark and disgraceful farce to an end.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.