Pentagon Pauses Plan to Vaccinate GITMO Prisoners Early After Backlash

The Pentagon has paused a plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base and military prison in Cuba after reports sparked outrage this weekend. One Republican Representative called the plan "un-American" while the vaccine rollout continues to be slow in the U.S. Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed no detainees at the controversial prison have been vaccinated.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that prosecutor Clayton G. Trivett Jr. wrote to defense lawyers of five prisoners accused of planning the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that a Pentagon official "just signed a memo approving the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine to the detainee population in Guantánamo." Medical staff at the naval base started vaccinating residents on Jan. 8, including 1,500 troops. However, President Donald Trump's administration never said if prisoners received the vaccine. It is not clear how many people tested positive for COVID-19 at the base, as the Pentagon stopped making the data publicly available after two cases were reported early in the pandemic.

There are 40 detainees at the prison. According to Trivett's memo, they could have started receiving vaccinations voluntarily as soon as Monday. The lack of vaccinations at the base was reportedly a reason for the delay in hearings at the base. The defendants in the Sept. 11 case include Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind of the attacks. It is not known if he gave his consent for a vaccine. An Army judge has scheduled an arraignment hearing on Feb. 22 for three prisoners accused of planning terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003.

The plan quickly drew anger from Republicans. "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," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted. "It is inexcusable and un-American that President Biden is choosing to prioritize vaccinations for convicted terrorists in Gitmo over vulnerable American seniors or veterans," Rep. Elise Stefanik wrote.

By Saturday afternoon, the plan was put on hold. "No Guantanamo detainees have been vaccinated," Kirby tweeted. "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."

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Although not every American can get a coronavirus vaccine, almost 22 million have already received their first shot. About 1.2 million people are getting their first or second doses of the vaccine each day, reports Vox. At that rate, the U.S. will not hit 75% vaccination rate, a possible threshold for herd immunity, until early 2022.