Despite differences, Guantanamo prison out-of-sight, if not mind, in presidential election

The Takeaway

Guantanamo Bay inmates are generally confined to prison cells, like this one. Inset is the prison reading room. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.)

This election season, the candidates have focused their message on employment and the middle class.

These issues are no doubt important, but what is the hyper-focus on the economy leaving out of the campaign? Guantanamo Bay, for one.

The only person to mention Guantanamo in this year's presidential campaign wasn't a candidate, or even a politician. It was Clint Eastwood, in his Republican National Convention monologue, delivered to an empty chair.

In 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain advocated for the closure of Guantanamo Bay as a way to improve the United States’ tattered image among the international community.

But Mitt Romney, as a candidate for the Republican nomination in 2007, suggested he wanted to increase the number of prisoners at Guantanamo.

"I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil," he said in a televised debate. "I don’t want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo."

The 2012 Republican Platform ignores Guantanamo. The Democrats’ platform has a more nuanced approach than it did in 2008, promising to eventually close the facility.

"We are substantially reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay without adding to it, and we remain committed to working with all branches of government to close the prison altogether because it is inconsistent with our national security interests and our values," it says.

Miami Herald correspondent Carol Rosenberg, who has been covering the Guantanamo Bay trials in Cuba, said the prison has been neutralized as a campaign issue because Congress has blocked taking any action to close it down.

"There's still a very, very stark difference between the two sides. It would be very interesting to hear both men talk in this campaign season about what it is they have in mind," Rosenberg said.

There are 166 men in the Guantanamo prison as of Monday — exactly half as many people as were confined there when Romney made his comments in 2007 calling for a doubling of the population.

And even if Guantanamo isn't shut down any time soon, there are a number of cases coming up that will require action by whomever is elected president next. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, is among five men facing the death penalty in a trial that's just beginning.

Another trial will look at the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

Rosenberg said the Guantanamo prison can fit into the larger narrative of this campaign, which is broadly focused on the economy.

"Guantanamo is expensive. Guantanamo costs about $800,000 a year, per detainee," she said.

To date, six people have been convicted by military commissions. But some of the charges, including the larger crimes in the cases upcoming, remain unsettled, at least in U.S. civilian courts.

"They're still trying to determine what laws apply, and what is the authority of this military tribunal down there," Rosenberg said.