The American Legion Magazine | 5.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd
Promising to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism,” President Barack Obama has ordered the closure of the detention facility at GuantanamoBay. But what will become of its residents, some of whom happen to be sworn enemies of the United States?
A presidential taskforce is trying to answer that question; it has less than year to come up with a plan.
There are an estimated 245 detainees at GITMO today. As Reuters reports, the Pentagon says that 110 “should never be released because of the potential danger they pose to U.S. interests.”
About 800 enemy combatants have cycled through GITMO since 2002. Of the hundreds that have been released, 61 have returned to their global jihad, according to the Pentagon. And that’s just the known cases. Given the hardcore hatred that animates America’s terrorist enemies, it seems likely that many more of these paroled prisoners are back at war, forcing American troops to defeat them a second time. It’s the very definition of self-defeating.
In fact, at least one former GITMO inmate—a terrorist released in 2007 into a Saudi rehabilitation program—is now second in command of al Qaeda in Yemen. That branch of al Qaeda has been very active of late, launching an attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen last fall. Plus, as The New York Times reports, “Some high-level terrorism suspects have also mysteriously escaped from Yemeni jails.”
That underscores how effective—despite all its imperfections and shortcomings—the isolated base at GITMO was at protecting society at large from our enemies.
In any event, Obama is making good on his promise. As CNN reports, to do so, he may transfer some inmates to their home countries or to willing allies, choose to prosecute some inmates in federal courts, and/or create a new “national security court.”
One major problem with sending detainees back to their home countries—a problem the Bush administration encountered—is that some of these countries dispute the nationality of detainees and some would mistreat or summarily execute them.
As to a helping hand from allied countries, the European Parliament has passed a measure calling on EU members to accept inmates from the facility. But individual European countries are not exactly jumping at the chance to open their borders to GITMO’s worst. According to Bloomberg News, the Dutch government refuses to accept any GITMO inmates. A Czech official argues that the GITMO headache “is primarily a U.S. responsibility.” A German official says his government will consider inmates on a “case-by-case” basis. Britain holds 10 former GITMO terrorists, and the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, says his country has “already made a significant contribution to the closure of Guantanamo.”
Europe’s reluctance increases the odds that some number of GITMO inmates will end up inside the United States. In fact, as John Bellinger, a legal adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told NPR, the Obama administration “could take a handful of individuals into the U.S. as a way to essentially prime the pump and remove that reluctance from other countries.”
But where will they go? The New York Times reports that Pentagon officials have quietly inspected “several military bases in the United States that could potentially replace the detention center at GuantanamoBay.” Among the possibilities are Ft.Leavenworth in Kansas and CampPendleton in California.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) says “maximum-security federal facilities, wherever they are available,” are an option.
But there’s a lot of opposition to these options. According to a New York Times analysis, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) concluded that some inmates might be moved to stateside prisons, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) “taunted” her by “suggesting that the authorities reopen Alcatraz Prison in the San Francisco Bay,” which is located in Feinstein’s home state.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) notes that “Leavenworth doesn’t have an exterior fence.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has introduced legislation that would prevent GITMO detainees from being transferred anywhere on American soil. Calling Obama’s decision to close the GITMO detention facility “unacceptable,” Inhofe warns that it “could have a devastating impact on our national security.” He argues that his constituents “will not feel safe with some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world—men who would kill thousands for an extremist ideology—on our soil.”
Inhofe also notes that the Senate passed a nonbinding resolution 94-3 in 2007 stating that “detainees housed at Guantanamo should not be released into American society nor should they be transferred stateside into facilities in American communities and neighborhoods.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates would seem to agree. Reuters reports that Gates wants Congress to “pass legislation to protect the American public by preventing any former Guantanamo detainee from living in the United States.”
Indeed, the risks of closing down GITMO—the prospect of terrorists being set free by foreign governments, U.S. prison populations being radicalized by jihadist inmates, and stateside cities and towns being endangered by the presence of enemy fighters—seem greater than the rewards, which include better relations with Europe, a clearer national conscience and in Obama’s words, a return to the “moral high ground.”
In short, none of the alternatives are good or easily implemented, which may explain why the Bush administration chose the path that it did. Holding accused terrorists in the legal limbo of GITMO was not ideal, but it kept the enemy off the battlefield and away from America’s shores.