05/17/2013 12:14 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

Guantanamo in Context

The average detainee at Guantánamo has been held there for over nine years. To put that time span in perspective, nine years ago, Forbes magazine was speculating about the potential for a "video iPod," and Barack Obama was serving his first term as Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee in the Illinois Senate. Oh, and Justin Bieber was ten years old and probably engrossed with his Hokie Pokie Elmo (a top toy from the time).

Reports about the number of detainees currently on hunger strike have refocused attention on Guantánamo Bay. Most notably, in a press conference last week President Obama reiterated his efforts to close the prison, and much has been written about his options to do so.

But if we're trying to understand Guantánamo in an informed way, it's vital to have a sense of the facts, beyond the anecdotes and headlines.

First, it's worth thinking about the current situation from the perspectives of the detainees themselves. After all, the current news storm was inspired by the detainees' own choices to go on hunger strike. A few statistics that have been overlooked:

  • 86 of the current detainees were cleared for release in January 2010, following a yearlong review of every detainee by the Obama administration. At the time, 126 detainees were cleared for release, but only a third left US custody in the interim. As for the remaining 86, they've spent three subsequent years in custody despite being cleared.

  • Over 40 of the current detainees arrived at Guantánamo before turning 20. Arriving as teenagers, they're now approaching their 30th birthdays still in US custody at the same prison. These individuals have spent almost an entire formative decade in detention. Of this group, at least 16 were cleared for release three years ago in the 2009-2010 review.

The government has not revealed which detainees are on hunger strike (nor the names of all those cleared for release), so it's not possible to compare these two lists. But an overlap wouldn't be surprising at all.

Second, it's important to look back on government justifications for holding these men at Guantánamo over the years. Earlier statements by government officials stand in stark contrast to the current push to close the prison. No doubt, some of the individuals currently detained made serious efforts to attack the United States, most notably the five detainees charged with plotting 9/11. However, how should we view statements such as those by Donald Rumsfeld and his spokesmen that Guantánamo contained "the worst of the worst"? Consider that:

  • Of the 86 detainees currently cleared for release, at least 40 had previously been accused (in government documents) of being an enemy fighter or attending an enemy training camp. 26 detainees currently cleared for release were accused of engaging in hostilities against the United States or its allies.

  • More broadly, detainees with more significant allegations against them were not detained at Guantánamo for longer periods of time than those with less significant allegations against them. This conclusion can be reached using data from a report by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.

If the government does not defend its prior positions, what changes have been made to avoid future errors? Certainly, the exact details of these detainees' cases remain unclear when using only unclassified information so parts of the picture could be incomplete. But these figures alone should raise red flags about past government statements, and encourage people to rethink their beliefs.

Most of the detainees arrived during the first term of the Bush administration, and therefore recently marked their third presidential inauguration at the facility. They've seen America re-elect the president who put them there, and then re-elect the president who did not deliver on his promise to let them out. Even without considering the exact conditions to which they've been subjected, should we be shocked that they're on hunger strike?

For the detainees and their families the current narrative is likely a nightmare version of "the more things change, the more they stay the same." After all, when the first detainees arrived at Guantánamo, Tiger Woods was the number 1 golfer in the world.