Guantanamo Bay prisoners who are no longer deemed a direct threat are "cleared for transfer", but if their home country is not considered stable enough, they continue to be held, at great cost to U.S. public image if nothing else.

To this questioner's mind, this policy seems to be completely irrational; either the prisoner is dangerous or he is not. If he is dangerous, surely he could travel to a failed state to operate from, regardless of where he is released. If he is not dangerous, and is released to a failed state, then he would be most likely to end up dead, in a refugee camp, or holed up with relatives hoping for the best, just like everyone else there.

Why was this policy chosen and why is it being kept in place?

  • The policy sounds quite counter-intuitive. Do you have a source that verifies that's actually the case?
    – yannis
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 15:07
  • 1
    @YannisRizos That's a nice way of putting it! It's been covered pretty well in the media, here's one: defenseone.com/politics/2014/06/…
    – John Woo
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 15:58
  • I wouldn't say it's irrational. Terrorism doesn't necessarily stem from the individual solely, but often from the individual combined with the particular environmental influences they happen to be surrounded by.
    – user1530
    Commented Oct 21, 2014 at 20:11
  • @JohnWoo I don't think it's a binary "they're either dangerous or they are not". The success of any prisoner's reformation is that they aren't unduly dragged back into their old ways and habits...of which environment is a huge factor. Just as recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are encouraged to not hang out with their old alcoholic and drug addicted friends.
    – user1530
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 8:25
  • @DA That argument doesn't fly. Are you saying that someone who can be influenced to commit terrorism isn't dangerous?
    – John Woo
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 8:27

3 Answers 3


When it comes to terrorists, the United States doesn't really enjoy "catch and release."

Just because the United States releases a prison from their custody, it does not mean the person is going free. Typically, by "release" the United States is remanding the prisoner to the custody of another country to face charges there. If the government is not stable, the United States fears that the prisoner will not face appropriate charges, and may become a threat again.


Presumably because it would look equally bad and could be legally problematic. Similarly, it is not unusual (for European countries at least, don't know about the US) to stay deportation on humanitarian grounds when a country is unstable or when a person could face abuse or has a medical condition that cannot be appropriately treated there. This means that thousands of people find themselves illegally in Europe (say they have overstayed a visa, been denied asylum, exhausted all possible appeals, etc.) and yet cannot be deported.

There is a kind of hypocrisy in this: Millions of people are stuck in their countries of origin, facing the consequences of war, with no access to proper healthcare, etc. and we don't do much for them but once a person is in our custody, we don't want to dirty our hands by putting them back there. Still, it's a rather well established principle so there is nothing irrational about applying it in this case.

You might try to argue that none of those people are entirely innocent, that without their incarceration they would have lived in these trouble countries anyway, etc. but to most people, especially out of the US, that's not convincing at all and what happens to them is now the US' responsibility. To the extent that the US public image is the main concern, repatriation to an unstable country does not appear to be a win.

The “obvious” solution is to give all those that cannot be convicted of some specific crime in a regular court of law the right to live freely on the US mainland. But since that seems out of the question, there are only ugly options left: indefinite detention without trial, deportation to dangerous places, handing detainees over to suspect regimes, or letting other countries clean up the US' mess.


Because the United States wouldn't want to release people to countries where the detaineees may have their human rights abused.

  • 1
    Whilst this may be true; it's also profound doublespeak by the administration. As I'm sure that the actual human rights abuse of holding people cleared for release exceeds the possible human rights risk in their home country. Especially if the detainees have no say on whether they prefer freedom instead of safety. Prior torture of captives, either real or claimed, doesn't mesh with psuedo-paternalistic overtones of having the prisoner's welfare in mind; especially if said welfare is only interpreted in a manner convenient to the captor. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 1:34
  • @LateralFractal - Nope. That IS an actual legal reason. And let's not equate minor inconviniences suffered by Guantanomo inmates with actual real torture employed by most ME countries' governments, please.
    – user4012
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 3:35
  • @DVK It's selective bureaucracy; and you've neatly side-stepped what say the detainees have in their own welfare. I haven't equated the magnitude of harm between countries but rather I'm highlighting the illusion that the US actually gives a #### about them, simply because of cherry-picked international laws. If a detainee has asked to stay in gitmo; and has been given honest information on the risks of future abuse in their native country; and absolutely no other country has offered to take them in - then yes, this isn't doublespeak. Otherwise the statement is still disingenuous. Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 4:38
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    @LateralFractal That's kind of what I was going for with the question: Is this the unintentional result of an unfortunate organizational process, or is it done with purposeful cynicism?
    – John Woo
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 8:32
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    @DVK Perhaps this entire chain could have been avoided if this answer was "Because the United States can't release people to countries where the detaineees may have their human rights abused." As "wouldn't want to" smacks of apologism for the last two administrations: "Sorry about the last decade or so of imprisonment without trial; but really we care about you - that's why you are still imprisoned without trial" Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 11:19

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