WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has quietly begun efforts to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, using an under-the-radar approach to minimize political blowback and to try to make at least some progress in resolving a long-standing legal and human rights morass before the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
After initial plans for a more aggressive push to close the facility — including rebuffed attempts to recruit a special envoy to oversee the strategy — the White House changed course, sources said. The administration has opted to wait before it reaches out to Congress, which has thwarted previous efforts to close the camp, because of fears that political outcry might interfere with the rest of Biden's agenda.
"They don't want it to become a dominant issue that blows up," a former senior administration official involved in the discussions said of Biden officials. "They don't want it to become a lightning rod. They want it to be methodical, orderly."
The administration hopes to transfer a handful of the remaining terrorism suspects to foreign countries, the people familiar with the discussions said, and then persuade Congress to permit the transfer of the rest — including 9/11 suspects — to detention on the U.S. mainland. Biden hopes to close the facility by the end of his first term, the people familiar with the discussions said.
But even though just 40 people are left at Gitmo, the Biden administration faces many of the same obstacles that doomed President Barack Obama's much more public effort to close it a dozen years ago.
President George W. Bush opened the detention facility in 2002. At its peak, it held nearly 800 detainees, including 9/11 suspects and combatants from the battlefield in Afghanistan. By the time Obama took office in 2009, fewer than 300 detainees were in the camp.
During his campaign for president, Obama had pledged to shutter the prison within a year of taking office. Two days after he was inaugurated, he issued an executive order to close Gitmo by the end of the year, and he restated the goal in media interviews.
Congress, however, resisted the transfer of detainees to the U.S. The House and the Senate rejected funding for the move and also blocked the transfers, with many Democrats voting against the Obama administration's plans.
By the end of his second term, Obama had reduced Guantánamo's population from 245 to 41 detainees, transferring many to foreign countries, but the prison remained in use.
The Biden administration, like the Obama administration, plans to use the cost of maintaining Guantánamo, including special care required as detainees age, to try to persuade Congress to reverse the ban on domestic transfers.
While there is still opposition in Congress to closing Guantánamo, some lawmakers and advocacy groups have called on the Biden administration to do more to shutter the facility, including appointing someone as a point person or administration czar who can could negotiate transfer agreements and be in charge of closing the facility.
A group of Democratic senators urged Biden to re-establish the position of special envoy for Guantánamo closure at the State Department and to rebuild "the appropriate closure infrastructure at the Defense Department."
Amnesty International USA has called on Biden to "immediately to appoint a high-level official in his administration to take charge of closing Guantánamo and arranging the transfers of all detainees who are not charged with crimes, a critical first step to ending the indefinite detention of the detainees there."
At a minimum, people familiar with administration discussions said, the Biden White House hopes to show some progress on closing Guantánamo by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Biden has ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, and officials are cognizant of the optics of ending the war while one of its most infamous relics remains.
"People are starting to focus on it more," a person familiar with the discussions said.