Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

With Closing Of Guantanamo, What Happens Next?

With a stroke of a pen, President Obama issued an executive order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within one year. Now come the details: how the closing will happen, and what challenges the new administration faces as a result.

Signing the order may well be the easiest part of the process to shutter the controversial detention center. Over the next few months, there will be much discussion, debate and undoubtedly arguments among members of the president's task force and others about what to do with the roughly 245 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.

John Hutson, dean of the Franklin Pierce Law Center and a former Navy Judge Advocate General, was part of a team of military officials who met with Obama on Thursday about the prison.


Hutson says the first thing to do is figure out who is really at Guantanamo.

"One of the things these executive orders do," Hutson said, "is bring all the documents and evidence into one place, which apparently up until now hasn't been done. So you had evidence kind of littered around the world, so that it's been very difficult to determine what the real case is here."

Once the task force has gone through all the evidence and intelligence, Hutson says, it can determine who needs to remain in detention and who can be released.

About 60 detainees have been cleared for release. Some were cleared months ago, but either the Bush administration did not send them to their home countries, fearing they may be persecuted, or no country would take them.

John Bellinger, who was legal adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has worked on repatriating the detainees. He says that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting other nations to accept detainees was the Bush administration's refusal to accept them into the U.S.


"You can imagine going into a negotiation to urge Europeans or others to take detainees," Bellinger said. "One of the first questions is always, 'Well, are you willing to take some?' — and we've so far said, 'No.' "

Bellinger says he expects things will change under a new administration, in part because there is much international goodwill for Obama.

"I certainly can't guarantee it, but I would expect the Obama administration would take a much closer look at whether they could take a handful of individuals into the U.S. as a way to essentially prime the pump and remove that reluctance from other countries," Bellinger said.

Detainees likely will end up in the U.S. anyway if countries are not willing to take those cleared for release, or if it's determined they should be tried and detained in the U.S.

But there has already been opposition. House Republicans have introduced legislation to prohibit federal courts from ordering the release or transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. Obama may have to spend some of his domestic political capital in bringing them to the mainland.

It also has to be decided how the men will be prosecuted. Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke Law School, says one option would be military courts-martial, which could be held anywhere in the world.

"I think we've got to be concerned; the president has got to be concerned about restoring America's standing in the world," Silliman said, "So we've got to come up with a fair system, but one which will guarantee a secure atmosphere."

The administration should think of a multifaceted approach, said law professor Glenn Sulmasy of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He suggests using federal courts for cases where there is evidence. And creating a national security — or terrorism — court for those cases where there is no evidence.

"We can use this new system of justice to try them," Sulmasy said, "not necessarily to detain them indefinitely, but to actually try them with standards that are different than the existing criminal justice system."

Creating that type of court would require legislation, which would take time. Identifying a location and building a new prison would also take time.

But many analysts say the yearlong time frame is doable. No matter how it happens, 12 months from now, the gates to the prison camp will be closed. The detainees will be taken out of their cells and put on airplanes bound for freedom or continued detention elsewhere. And Guantanamo will revert to being a sleepy naval base on the far side of Cuba.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit