FrontPage | 6.7.13
By Alan W. Dowd
Barack Obama, quite out of the blue, has renewed his long-dormant effort to
close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. “I continue to
believe that we've got to close Guantanamo,” he said in April.
“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is
inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing…It needs to be
closed.” Just a few days ago, he added, “GTMO has become a symbol around the
world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
If that’s the
case, then the president can count himself among the guilty. After all, the
president has had four years and five months to close the terrorist penal
colony at Guantanamo. Indeed, two days into his presidency, he directed the
Pentagon to shutter the detention
facilities “no later than
one year from the date of this order,” vowing to return America to
the "moral high ground.” Suffice
it to say that when he and his lieutenants want to do something, they do it, as
they have proven with scores of questionable executive actions. (See the
administration’s extra-constitutional appointments, regulations flouting the
letter and spirit of federal statutes, intervention in Libya, use of HHS to shake
down the healthcare industry, and the many examples of abuse of power:
Solyndra, bugging the AP, using the IRS to micro-target Tea Party groups and “punish our enemies,” purposely misleading
and airbrushing facts out of Benghazi to preserve the 2012 campaign’s fatuous
“tide of war is receding” narrative.) When the president wants a cause, on the
other hand, he pretends his hands are tied, as in the case of Guantanamo.
people can and do disagree about the terrorist detention facility. One group
says the prison is “contrary to who we are” and “contrary to our interests,” as
the president puts it. The other group contends it’s an imperfect solution to a
very difficult problem—the least bad option in this post-9/11 world. Count me
among the latter group.
least bad option because the other alternatives—sending detainees back to their
home countries or transferring them into the United States—are not viable.
detainees back to their countries of origin is, quite simply, self-defeating. A
2012 report produced by the intelligence
community concluded that almost 16 percent of the 602 detainees that have
cycled through Guantanamo returned to terrorism, and another 12 percent are
suspected of doing so. That’s a recidivism rate of about 28
percent—uncomfortably high when it comes to people willing to turn themselves
into guided missiles.
concerns about host-country security make transfer a risky proposition. In
2010, for instance, the president ordered a full-stop on transfers to Yemen
after it was discovered that al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch (AQAP) was planning to
blow up a U.S.-bound flight. However, last month, he lifted that ban.
Yemeni government is building a “rehabilitation” facility expressly for the 56
Yemenis held at Guantanamo. But given that AQAP orchestrated prison
breaks in 2003, 2006 and 2011, Yemen’s capacity to hold Guantanamo parolees is
very much in doubt, as is the efficacy of terrorist-rehab programs. A Saudi program—with
far more lavish spending and incentives than Yemen could ever provide—dubiously
claims a reintegration rate of 80 percent.
As to transferring the detainees to stateside prisons, bipartisan majorities in Congress have
repeatedly made clear—most recently in the 2013 National Defense Authorization
Act—that Guantanamo detainees may not be transferred into the United States. A bill currently being marked up would block the administration
from transferring remaining detainees to the U.S. or to undependable foreign
governments like Yemen.
A hundred Guantanamo
detainees are currently on a hunger strike, protesting alleged mishandling of
their Korans, which the U.S. military denies. It’s important to note that such
tactics and claims are standard operating procedure for al Qaeda and its
partners. An al-Qaeda training manual offers jihadists clear guidelines for using our justice system—premised
on the twin notions that the accused is innocent until proven guilty and that
the state’s power should be checked—against us. Among the instructions:
to a hunger strike.”
on proving that torture was inflicted.”
of mistreatment while in prison.”
advantage of visits to communicate with brothers outside prison.”
an Islamic program for [brothers] inside the prison.”
piece of advice helps explain why Guantanamo detainees shouldn’t be transferred
to stateside prisons. The president points to “a whole bunch
of individuals who have been tried who are currently in maximum security
prisons around the country…the individual who attempted to bomb Times Square…the
individual who tried to bomb a plane in Detroit…a Somali who was part of
Al-Shabaab” as proof that Guantanamo’s jihadists can be moved stateside without
risk. But that’s not what
worries opponents of stateside transfer. What’s worrisome is that once
mainstreamed into the U.S. prison system, Guantanamo’s lifers would recruit
other inmates to their jihadist cause and radicalize individuals who might one
day be released—something they cannot do from inside the Guantanamo penal
Even Janet Napolitano’s Department
of Homeland Security—the people who replaced “terrorism” with the Orwellian
term “man-caused disasters”—recognizes radicalization as a real problem, announcing in 2011 a federal-state effort “to develop a
mitigation strategy for terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and
recruitment.” Testimony before House and Senate committees reveals that“up to
three dozen Americans who converted to Islam in prison have travelled to Yemen
to train with al-Qaeda.” High-profile terrorists like Jose Padilla, Richard
Reid and Michael Finton converted to jihadism in prison.
notwithstanding, the Bush administration—just like the Obama administration—wanted to close the prison facility at Guantanamo. But the Bush administration concluded that
the alternatives—letting sworn enemies of the United States loose or summarily
executing them on the battlefield or shipping them back to untrustworthy
administration has found a way around this conundrum: an unrelenting barrage of
drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and other fronts in what used to be called the
“global war on terror.” The results are not for the squeamish.
-The Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the
3,300-plus militants killed by drones in Pakistan, nearly 600 non-militants may
have been killed.
Washington Post reports that a growing number of
drone strikes in
Yemen target individuals merely “suspected” of having links to terrorism.
to a New York Times portrait of the inner workings of the drone
war, the White House has embraced a controversial method for determining
civilian casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as
combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them
innocent.” The report describes the president as
“at the helm of a top-secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for
kill or capture, of which the capture part has become
largely theoretical.” He studies “mug shots
and brief biographies” of possible targets, approves “every new name on an
expanding ‘kill list,’” “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and
also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,” and often decides
“personally whether to go ahead” with a drone strike.
sounds like a commander-in-chief fulfilling his primary responsibility of
protecting the nation from its enemies, then so does the Bush administration’s
decision to open a makeshift detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Love him or
hate him, President George W. Bush’s motives in shipping enemy combatants to
Guantanamo was to protect the country. Of course, motives mean nothing to
Bush’s successor is learning that motives don’t matter to critics of the drone
war, either, which means Nobel Peace Prize holder Barack Obama finds himself on
the wrong side of global opinion—exactly where Bush spent his presidency. According to a Pew
the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally
and does not consider the interests of other countries.” Indeed, what looks like a successful
counterterrorism campaign to Americans, looks very different to international
observers. “In 17 of
20 countries,” Pew found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks
targeting extremist leaders and groups in nations such as Pakistan, Yemen and
Somalia.” Moreover, the UN has formed “an
investigation unit” within the Human Rights Council to “inquire into individual
drone attacks…in which it has been alleged that civilian casualties have been
“Reliance on drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our country as a
distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death,” argues Kurt Volker, former U.S.
ambassador to NATO. “It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment
and alienates those we should seek to inspire.”
To borrow a
phrase, it seems the drone war hurts our international standing.
This is not
an argument in defense of international watchdogs tying America down. The UN
secretariat may refuse to recognize America’s special role, but by turning to
Washington whenever civil war breaks out, nuclear weapons sprout up, terrorists
strike, sea lanes are threatened, natural disasters wreak havoc, or genocide is
let loose, it is tacitly conceding that the United States is, well, special.
Washington has every right to kill those who are trying to kill Americans. However,
the international backlash against the drone war reminds us there is virtually
always a downside to U.S. national-security decisions.
side by side, the Guantanamo hunger strikes and the president’s drone strikes
leave us with a hard question amidst a hard war: Which is more effective, more
humane, more ethical, less damaging to our international standing—to imprison
known and suspected enemies of the United States without parole, or to execute
known and suspected enemies of the United States without trial?
The moral high
ground is a very tiny patch of territory.