Gitmo timeline: How we got here

Gitmo timeline: How we got here
© Getty Images

President Obama on Tuesday sent Congress his plan to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, claiming the move “is about closing a chapter in our history.”

The effort is sure to run into heated opposition on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have repeatedly blocked White House efforts to close the facility.


Since it opened in 2002, the detention facility has held roughly 780 prisoners. Nine have died there, and, as of Tuesday, 91 remain.

Here’s a look back at how the small Caribbean outpost transformed from a largely unknown naval base to the center of one of Washington’s most divisive issues.


The U.S. leases 45 square miles of land in Guantánamo Bay from Cuba to build a Naval station. The station remains in U.S. hands even as the two countries’ governments grow distant after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in the 1950s.

The U.S. continues to pay annual rent on the land, though Cuba has reportedly refused to cash many of the checks.

Jan. 11, 2002

The George W. Bush administration brings the first 20 detainees to Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray as part of a rapid reaction to the 9/11 attacks by al Qaeda. By the end of the month, there are 156 detainees at the facility.

The administration claimed that the detainees were neither jailed criminals nor prisoners of war and so were not subject to international human rights law.

May 2003

The number of detainees at the base reaches its all-time high of roughly 680 as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan progresses.

June 28, 2004

The Supreme Court rules that Guantánamo detainees labeled as “enemy combatants” have the right to challenge their status through the legal process.

The 6-3 decision opens the door to a series of military panels to determine the legality of detainees’ captivity.

June 10, 2006

The Defense Department reports that three Guantánamo detainees have committed suicide in an apparent act of coordinated protest against their continued imprisonments.

The suicides are the first reported deaths at the military prison since it opened.

At least six other people would die at the camp, with two of the deaths attributed to natural causes.  

June 29, 2006

In a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court places new limits on the government’s ability to try detainees in military tribunals and upholds their right to challenge their detention in federal court. 

Congress never established the tribunals, the court declares, and the process violates the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Three months later, Congress would pass legislation designed to give the Bush administration a legal avenue to review detainees’ status through military commissions.

Sept. 6, 2006

Top al Qaeda operatives arrive at Guantánamo, including 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The 14 “high-value detainees” were previously held at secret CIA “black sites,” which Bush acknowledges for the first time. While at those overseas locations, some detainees were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, which have been widely condemned as torture.

March 14, 2008

Muhammad Rahim al Afghani, who allegedly helped Osama bin Laden escape capture, arrives at Guantánamo Bay as a “high-value detainee.”

He is the last detainee known to have been brought to the camp.

June 12, 2008

The Supreme Court declares that detainees have the right to go before a federal judge to challenge their indefinite imprisonment without charge.

The 5-4 ruling overturns part of the 2006 law Congress passed to shuttle detainees through military commissions. The court invalidated a provision in that law, called the Military Commissions Act, that denied habeas corpus rights to detainees at the military detention facility.

Jan. 20, 2009

President Obama takes office, vowing to close the facility. Two days later, he signs an executive order demanding that the detention facility be closed within one year.

The number of detainees in the prison at the time is roughly 245.

Dec. 22, 2010

Congress passes a defense policy bill with firm limits preventing the administration from trying Guantánamo detainees in a civilian court.

Obama signs it into law, effectively shutting down the administration’s move to bring some captives to the U.S. for trial.

Shortly afterward, the Justice Department abandons its controversial plan to try Mohammed and others accused of plotting 9/11 in U.S. federal court.

March 2013

Dozens of the 166 Guantánamo detainees go on hunger strike to protest their detention. By April, the number rises to 106 detainees.

The military force-feeds dozens of the prisoners through feeding tubes. Some of them are hospitalized.

By September 2015, one of the men on the hunger strike — Tariq Ba Odah — has dropped to weigh just 75 pounds.

News organizations later join a lawsuit to make videotapes of the force-feeding public.

Jan. 14, 2016

The Defense Department transfers 10 Yemeni detainees to Oman, bringing the number of people imprisoned at the facility to 93. It’s the first time the facility’s detainee population is below 100 since it was created in 2002.

Two weeks later, two more detainees are released to Montenegro and Bosnia, bringing the prison’s population down to 91.

Feb. 23, 2016

The Obama administration sends to Congress a four-part strategy to close the facility, heeding a demand lawmakers made in the year’s defense funding legislation.

The plan would send 35 of the remaining detainees abroad and ship up to 60 to the U.S. mainland.