The Guantanamo PRBs: A Key—But Neglected—Piece of the Puzzle
Today the Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) will conduct its 16th hearing to determine whether a detainee continues to pose a threat to the United States or can be cleared for transfer. The PRBs, which were supposed to have at least started proceedings for the 53 remaining eligible detainees, have been moving at a painfully slow pace. This delay has serious consequences for the prospects of closing Guantanamo during the Obama presidency.
Today’s PRB will review Libyan national Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar, an alleged al Qaeda fighter who was recruited as a teenager by his uncle into the Libyan Salvation Movement against Moamar Qadafi. Umar lost his right leg when he stepped on a landmine in a minefield he was helping clear before his capture in 2002.
He was arrested by Pakistani police in a March 2002 raid of a suspected al Qaeda safe house and handed over to U.S. forces. The United States transferred Umar to Guantanamo in August 2002, believing he was of “high intelligence value” and had information about a Jalalabad training camp and obtaining fake passports and visas in Pakistan. According to his 2008 assessment by Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Umar’s conduct while at Guantanamo had been “mostly compliant.”
Much of the focus around the Obama Administration’s failure to close Guantanamo has been on congressional obstruction. Indeed, this year Congress is seeking to make the already unprecedented Guantanamo transfer restrictions even more onerous. These restrictions would effectively prevent the president from achieving his legacy goal of closing the prison, and have led to several veto threats from the administration.
But the congressional restrictions only tell part of the story. The other part is the administration’s failure to transfer the 51 cleared Guantanamo detainees and conduct PRB hearings for the others, like Umar, who have never been charged with any crime, yet have been detained for more than a decade.
President Obama established the PRBs through Executive Order 13567 in March 2011. This order mandated initial proceedings for all eligible detainees to commence within one year. Not only did the administration miss this deadline, but the PRB did not conduct a single hearing in its first year.
The board held its first hearing in November 2013 and handed down its first decision in January 2014, clearing Yemeni Mahmud Abd Al Aziz Al Mujahid. The PRB found Al Mujahid’s continued detention “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” Seventeen months after this decision and more than 13 years after he was brought to Guantanamo Bay, Al Mujahid remains detained at the prison.
Earlier this year, the PRBs showed signs of progress when three hearings were held in as many weeks. But then they slowed right down again. Umar’s PRB hearing will be the first in over two months. At this rate, hearings will not be completed until 2020.
The administration didn’t just miss its self-imposed one-year deadline; by failing to move detainees through the PRB process, it is jeopardizing its own stated plan for closing the prison. Four months ago, the Special Envoys for Guantanamo Closure from the State and Defense Departments testified to the House Armed Services Committee that expediting the PRB process was a crucial element of the Obama Administration’s plan to close Guantanamo.
And now even detainees are formally challenging the pace of the PRBs. Two weeks ago Guantanamo detainee Mohamedou Ould Slah filed a claim in the D.C. district court to compel the administration to provide him with a PRB hearing.
Regardless of what is happening in Congress, President Obama can make significant progress towards closing Guantanamo on his own. The administration should commit all the necessary resources to expedite the PRBs and the transfer process. To use the president’s own words from 2013, Guantanamo “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” Obama should act now to show that he is truly committed to doing all he can to close it.