Defense Department halts plan to vaccinate Guantanamo detainees

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The Department of Defense on Saturday paused a plan to give the COVID-19 vaccine to detainees in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The camp houses about 40 prisoners, including high-value detainees such as the self-described architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The Pentagon paused the program after Republicans criticized it for putting terror suspects ahead of vulnerable Americans.

The plan became public Friday when a spokesperson for the Department of Defense confirmed to CBS News and other outlets that the department would administer COVID-19 vaccines to all detainees on a voluntary basis. 

“COVID-19 vaccinations will be offered to all detainees and prisoners. It will be administered on a voluntary basis and in accordance with the Department’s priority distribution plan,” the spokesperson said.

But the announcement was met with sharp criticism from GOP politicians. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted Saturday, “President Biden told us he would have a plan to defeat the virus on day 1. He just never told us that it would be to give the vaccine to terrorists before most Americans.”

New York Representative Elise Stefanik tweeted that the plan was “inexcusable and un-American.”

By Saturday afternoon, the Pentagon had reversed course. “No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said. “We’re pausing the plan to move forward, as we review force protection protocols. We remain committed to our obligations to keep our troops safe.”

CDC vaccination guidelines say that both correctional staff and incarcerated people are at an increased risk of contracting the disease. The CDC recommends inoculating staff and detainees at the same time in order to help control outbreaks at prison facilities and in surrounding communities.

The vaccination plan was authorized through a January 27 memo signed by Terry Adirim, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs at the Department of Defense.

Guantanamo Bay opened in 2002 under former President George W. Bush to house so-called “high-value” detainees. After former President Barack Obama tried and failed over his eight years in office to shut down the prison camp, former President Donald Trump committed to keeping the facility open. 

Five 9/11 suspects are still awaiting trial at the military base, and the schedule has been further delayed over the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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