Eager to fulfill an old campaign promise, President Barack Obama is pushing hard to close the terror detention facility located at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). In mid-2014, he traded five high-value Taliban detainees at GTMO—all with links to al Qaeda, some with links to Osama bin Laden—for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Since November, the administration has released 22 GTMO detainees. (By way of comparison, just 19 were released from 2011 to 2013.) The president even devoted part of his State of the Union address to defending his efforts. “It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” the president declared last month, characteristically dismissing any position at odds with his. “I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are.”
That’s one perspective on Guantanamo. But like a Rorschach inkblot, there’s another perspective. The president’s glib comments notwithstanding, reasonable people can and do disagree about GTMO. What the president sees as “contrary to who we are” and “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” others see as the least-bad option—a hard answer to a hard question.
Truth and Consequences
Just two days after his inauguration, the president directed the Pentagon to close the Guantanamo prison “no later than one year from the date of this order.” So why is the prison still open six years later?
The president says it all comes down to partisan politics. “There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened,” according to the president.
That’s neither true nor fair.
First, the American people oppose the plan to shut down Guantanamo—and always have. Recent polling indicates that 56 percent of Americans want to keep the prison open. That explains why large, bipartisan majorities in Congress—including the Democratic-controlled Congress of 2009-2011—have repeatedly blocked the administration from transferring detainees to U.S. facilities, most recently in a funding bill passed into law last December.
That leads us to a second reason GTMO remains open. Trying to build support for transfer to stateside prisons, the president has noted, “No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” But escape is not what worries most of those opposed to stateside transfer. What worries them is that once placed in the U.S. prison system, Guantanamo’s lifers would recruit other inmates to their jihadist cause and radicalize individuals who might be released—something they cannot do from Guantanamo. It’s worth noting that an al-Qaeda training manual instructs captured fighters to “create an Islamic program for themselves inside the prison.”
Radicalization is a serious enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security announced in 2011 an initiative to thwart “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 and Richard Reid converted to jihadism while in prison.
Worried about GTMO’s very worst being set free, Sen. Lindsey Graham has proposed “a maximum security facility run by the military that is away from population centers.” One possibility is a base in Charleston, South Carolina. But getting Americans—and their representatives in Congress—to approve stateside transfer, even to a military facility, is a very high hurdle.
Third, sending detainees back to their countries of origin presents serious problems. First and foremost, it’s the very definition of self-defeating. As CNN reports, the intelligence community concludes that 16.6 percent of paroled detainees have returned to “terrorist activities” and dozens more are suspected of doing so. “Based on trends identified during the past 10 years, we assess that if additional detainees are transferred without conditions…some will reengage in terrorist or insurgent activities,” according to a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Given that we’re talking about people willing to blow up airplanes, buses, schools, churches and themselves, that’s an uncomfortably high recidivism rate.
Moreover, concerns about host-country security have stymied transfers. In 2010, for instance, Obama 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, in May 2013, he lifted that ban. The Yemeni government—at least on those occasions when it is functioning—has been building a “rehabilitation” facility expressly for the dozens of Yemenis held at Guantanamo. Cliff Sloan, former State Department envoy for GTMO issues, notes that 90 percent of the detainees approved for transfer are from Yemen.
Given that Yemen is literally falling apart, 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. At least one former GTMO inmate—a terrorist released in 2007 into the Saudi rehabilitation program—rose to second in command of AQAP.
U.S. intelligence and military officials conclude that as many as 30 former Guantanamo detainees have joined forces with ISIS and other militant groups inside Syria. All told, 180 of the 620 detainees released from the terror detention facility at GTMO have returned to jihad or are suspected of doing so.
There are 127 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay, down from a high of more than 750. And here’s the really bad news: “The further you go into the pile of GTMO detainees that are there now, the more dangerous they are,” retired Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon said in an interview with The Hill.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, who wants the prison closed, concedes, “There are going to be dozens of these individuals that have to be detained.”
By the way, when six Algerian detainees were put in the transfer queue, they asked to stay. “Given the choice between repatriation and incarceration,” as The Washington Post reports, “the men chose Gitmo.” Some of the detainees argued in federal court that a return to Algeria would end in torture or death—from which we can extrapolate, contrary to the claims made by some GTMO critics, that torture does not occur at GTMO. “These men would rather stay in Guantanamo for the rest of their lives than go to Algeria,” said one lawyer for the detainees. “That speaks volumes.”
Media mantras notwithstanding, the Bush administration, like the Obama administration, wanted to close the detention facility, but realized that the alternatives—letting sworn enemies of the United States loose, executing them on the battlefield, shipping them back to untrustworthy regimes—were either self-defeating or contrary to America’s values.
The Obama administration has found a way around this conundrum: drones. But the results are not for the squeamish. The Brookings Institution estimates that, along with the 3,300-plus militants killed by drones in Pakistan, some 600 non-militants have been killed.
According to a New York Times portrait of the inner workings of the drone war, the White House has embraced a controversial method for determining drone-strike casualties that “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
If banishing our stateless enemies to endless sentences at GTMO is “contrary to who we are,” to borrow the president’s language, then what exactly is a drone war that metes out punishment based on guilt by association and amounts to execution without trial?
Put another way, the moral high ground is very slippery and very difficult to hold in this war.
Just as GTMO has negatively impacted America’s international standing, so has the drone war. “In 17 of 20 countries,” a Pew survey found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks.”
“Reliance on drone strikes allows our opponents to cast our country as a distant, high-tech, amoral purveyor of death,” adds Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “It builds resentment, facilitates terrorist recruitment and alienates those we should seek to inspire.”
When placed side by side, these two responses to jihadist terrorism—GTMO and drones—bring us back to those same hard questions: Which is more effective, more ethical, less damaging to our 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? And if we don’t trust their countries of origin and don’t want them in the U.S., what other solution is there?
Until we find an answer, GTMO remains the least bad option.