- Expert Roundup
- CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.
On January 22, 2009, President Obama ordered the controversial prison camp at Guantanamo Bay closed within a year. But much has changed since the president set this self-imposed deadline. In December, the Obama administration proposed moving some of the remaining Guantanamo inmates to a rural state prison in Illinois. Earlier this month, the president reiterated his vow to close the camp, despite ordering a suspension of transfers to Yemen following evidence that the suspect in the Christmas Day airliner bombing plot received al-Qaeda training there. Roughly ninety of the remaining 198 prisoners are Yemeni nationals. Now, as Obama’s twelve-month milestone comes due, legal experts are refining their arguments on the future of Guantanamo Bay. Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that 2009 changed everything, and Obama should acknowledge he "cannot close Guantanamo anytime soon." CFR Adjunct Fellow John B. Bellinger III counters that the prison remains a stain on U.S. values and must be closed. Constitutional Rights attorney Shayana Kadidal writes that refusing to release men who have already been cleared "is absolutely unconscionable." And William Yeomans, a former legal adviser to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, suggests not only should Guantanamo be shuttered, it should be converted into a "base for Haitian relief and development." -- Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
President Obama has not only missed his self-imposed one-year deadline to close Guantanamo but will likely not be able to shutter the prison in 2010, and possibly not even during the next three years. Politically gun-shy Democratic majorities are unlikely to vote to move the Guantanamo detainees into the United States during an election year, and may be unwilling to do so at all. But this does not mean that President Obama should not continue his efforts to close the prison.
If the United States is going to detain a large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban members for a long period of time (which is both probable and necessary), it is certainly true that Guantanamo is a good place to do it. Guantanamo’s initial operational problems have long been worked out, and the prison is now expertly run by the military in a humane way that is consistent with international legal standards. The detainees would likely be worse off if moved to a Supermax prison. Moreover, although it is unlikely that detainees would be able to escape from a mainland prison or that such a facility could be attacked by other al-Qaeda terrorists, holding the detainees on an island in the Caribbean is certainly the most physically secure option.
On balance, Guantanamo does the American people more harm than good. It has come to symbolize abuse of Muslim prisoners and serves as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.
Then why close the prison? On balance, Guantanamo does the American people more harm than good. It has come to symbolize abuse of Muslim prisoners and serves as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. It also undermines vital counterterrorism cooperation from our Western allies, who view the prison as inconsistent with their own and U.S. values. It has proved impossible to shake these unfair perceptions. It is unlikely that the United States will want to keep Guantanamo open for another fifty to sixty years (even if it holds some detainees that long), and President Obama should instead continue to press Congress and our allies to help close it in an orderly way.
Both presidential candidates in 2008 promised to close Guantanamo. They did so because, as President Obama has repeatedly reaffirmed, doing so will make our nation safer. As former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate, "the first and second [leading] causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq--as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat--are, respectively, the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."
None of that changed with the attempted bombing of Flight 253. The Nigerian student bomber had allegedly trained in Yemen, supposedly with a group that included two released Saudi Guantanamo detainees. But the Saudis had been released by the Bush administration, not by court order or after the sort of cautious, formal assessment that President Obama’s Inter-Agency Task Force is undertaking now, but based purely on political and diplomatic expediency.
Opportunistic calls to keep Guantanamo open into its ninth year (or simply move it onshore) will do nothing to make America safer.
One of them had already turned himself in months ago, and told the BBC from custody that he joined the group because of horrific abuse he suffered at Bagram and Guantanamo. Perhaps the Nigerian student--by all accounts from a secular, educated, well-off family--was motivated by these stories as well.
Ironically, the intelligence agencies’ failure to follow up specific leads that could have averted the Christmas bombing has led to calls for more of the same counterproductive policies--assigning guilt and suspicion by religion and nationality--that will ensure that foreigners perceive the United States as their enemy and that good leads will be buried in a haystack of bad leads generated by over-broad profiling.
Guantanamo was filled by just such failed policies. Most of the detainees were not captured by our military on any battlefield, but seized in broad profiling sweeps and sold to the United States in exchange for substantial bounties. The vast majority should never have been detained in the first place.
To refuse to release men who have already been cleared by the task force or the courts is absolutely unconscionable. Opportunistic calls to keep Guantanamo open into its ninth year (or simply move it onshore) will do nothing to make America safer.
No doubt, al-Qaeda does utilize Guantanamo as a recruiting tool. However, al-Qaeda was recruiting terrorists long before there was a Gitmo--the attacks of 9/11/01 represent only the most lethal example.
More to the point: Whatever public diplomacy advantage may be achieved by closing the facility would be offset by the damage done to national security. Of the 198 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, 91 are from Yemen, where al-Qaeda has been active, not least training terrorists to blow up American passenger jets. President Obama has rightly decided not to send additional detainees from Gitmo to Yemen.
Where else can they go? Not to any country where they might face summary execution or torture. And none of our Democratic allies are eager to have these individuals arrive on their shores.
President Obama cannot close Guantanamo anytime soon. He should acknowledge that reality.
The option of bringing them to the United States also is unappealing. For one, they would immediately be granted the same constitutional rights as any American citizen. For another, setting up a new facility for them would be costly, not to mention a waste of the investment made at Gitmo. Indeed, if anyone wants to bet that Congress, in an election year, will appropriate funds to bring terrorists to America, my money is on the table.
In other words, President Obama cannot close Guantanamo anytime soon. He should acknowledge that reality. He should explain that his top priority is to protect American citizens. He should add that, under current management, Guantanamo is superior to any comparable facility anywhere in the world.
Its primary purpose is to keep enemy combatants off the battlefield. It achieves that--while providing healthy food, superb medical care, and clean housing to individuals who will slaughter Americans by the thousands if they ever get the chance. If al-Qaeda wants to use that for its recruitment drives, let them.
President Obama must fulfill his commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Indeed, he should convert the facility from a symbol of America’s lawless abuse of detainees into a beacon of humanitarian compassion by embracing its use as a base for Haitian relief and development.
The justification for closing Guantanamo remains undiminished. The facility was established as an extra-legal black hole for Muslim men, some of whom were dangerous, but most of whom had simply been in the wrong place or were turned over for bounty. Men disappeared into Guantanamo and were denied all access to justice until determined advocates convinced courts to recognize their rights. Guantanamo damaged our national security by tarnishing America’s standing in the world and serving as a powerful recruiting tool for terrorists. President Obama correctly recognized that restoring America’s strength required eliminating this blight on our ideals. His retraction of that promise would be calamitous.
President Obama correctly recognized that restoring America’s strength required eliminating this blight on our ideals. His retraction of that promise would be calamitous.
The president’s recognition that Yemen is a breeding ground for terrorists should not affect his commitment to close Guantanamo. The temporary moratorium on returning detainees to Yemen will simply require moving to the mainland some additional detainees who are already considered sufficiently non-threatening to be released. Whether detainees are in Guantanamo or Illinois, the administration will face the same decisions on whether and how to try them.
Congress should support the president’s instruction to obtain and outfit the corrections center in Thomson, Illinois. Maximum security federal facilities have long housed terrorists without incident. These facilities are secure from escape from within and penetration from without.
The president must not falter, and Congress must not again succumb to the politics of fear. Together, they should act quickly to turn a stain on our national soul into a vibrant symbol of hope and renewal.