top of page

Twenty-One Years of GITMO: The Spotted History and Practices of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

by Sean Wild



January 11, 2023, marked the anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, commonly known as GITMO. In its twenty-one years of operation, GITMO has been marred with allegations of inhuman treatment, abusive conditions, and even torture.


GITMO is located on an American Naval Base in Cuba. The U.S. assumed control of the territory in 1903, as a condition of Cuba's independence from Spain, after the U.S. won the Spanish-American War. It was one of several conditions in an agreement known as the Platt Amendment. However, Cuba eventually repealed this amendment and no longer acknowledges American occupation of the territory to be legitimate.


The detention camp first opened on January 11, 2002, under the Bush Administration. It was opened in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, and was intended for use as a facility to keep suspects with alleged ties to terrorist organizations. From the outset, practices at GITMO have been surrounded by controversy and secrecy. The Department of Defense originally did not release the identities of those being held, and the Bush administration claimed that detainees were not entitled to protections under the 1949 Geneva Convention1, which outlines the rights owed to those being held as prisoners during wartime. Both of these decisions proved to be legally unfounded and, after some legal battles, the number of prisoners and their identities were released. The courts also ruled that detainees were entitled to at least the minimal protections under the Geneva Convention.


Subsequent U.S. administrations had a range of responses to GITMO. During his presidency, President Obama attempted to close the camp, though these plans were met with bipartisan opposition from the halls of Congress.2 In 2018, President Trump signed an executive order3 to keep the facility open indefinitely. President Biden vowed to close the camp4 before the end of his presidency, though concrete steps remain to be taken.


In 2009, speaking of the people detained at GITMO, former Vice President Dick Cheney stated that they constitute the “worst of the worst.”5 The detention camp has certainly held a number of dangerous individuals6, including some who were found to have ties to the September 11th attacks and/or Al-Qaeda. However, Brigadier General Martin Lucenti, who was the deputy commander of the joint task force that ran GITMO, said7 that a majority of the detainees “weren't fighting. They were running. Even if somebody has been found to be an enemy combatant, many of them will be released because they will be of low intelligence value and low threat status.” In 2006, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Arlen Specter said8 that “where we have evidence, they ought to be tried, and if convicted, they ought to be sentenced.” He added that the majority of those being held at the time had been arrested based on “the flimsiest sort of hearsay.”


Many have criticized the conditions and interrogation techniques used at GITMO, including human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. In June of 2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross9 visited and inspected sections of the facility. A condition of the inspection was that the Red Cross’ report would remain confidential. However, the report was leaked to The New York Times; it stated10 in part that the practices employed at GITMO constituted “serious violations of international humanitarian law,” and that “persons deprived of their liberty face the risk of being subjected to a process of physical and psychological coercion, in some cases tantamount to torture, in the early stages of the internment process.”


Looking at the history of GITMO shows that U.S. practices regarding people suspected of terrorism are in serious need of reform. A logical step towards that goal would be to halt operations at GITMO, close the camp, and turn to an alternative course of action. The U.S. government must find a way to develop the policies and procedures necessary for the country’s safety without resorting to the violation of the dignity and rights of the human person.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.