President Barack Obama recently renewed his effort to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, calling on Congress to work with the administration to shut down the prison that holds 166 men caught up in the wars of 9/11. “I continue to believe that we’ve got to close Guantanamo,” he said. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing.”
That’s one perspective on Guantanamo—and a valid one. But like a Rorschach inkblot, there’s another perspective. Indeed, reasonable people disagree about Guantanamo. 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,” what some see as an example of unchecked power or a stain on America, others see as the least-bad option—a hard answer to a hard question, a superpower improvising its way toward a workable solution.
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.” But the American people opposed the plan to shut down Guantanamo and move the detainees into the United States by a two-to-one margin. Reflecting that sentiment, the Legion passed a resolution in 2009 calling on the president “to reverse his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay facility.”
The president’s closure order was welcomed by America’s allies, but those being held at Guantanamo were not. Although the European Parliament passed a measure calling on EU members “to be prepared to accept Guantanamo inmates,” individual European countries did not exactly jump at the chance to open their borders to Guantanamo’s residents. A State Department envoy cajoled some countries to take Guantanamo parolees into their prison systems, but he was reassigned in January—an indication he had reached a dead end.
Bipartisan majorities in Congress have repeatedly made it clear—most recently in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act —that Guantanamo detainees may not be transferred into the United States.
Sending detainees back to their countries of origin presents other problems. A 2012 report produced by the intelligence community conceded 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 bomb airplanes, buses, schools and sporting events.
Although some detainees have been cleared to return to their home countries, concerns about host-country security have stymied such transfers. 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, in May 2013, he lifted that ban.
The 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.)
A hundred detainees are currently on a hunger strike, protesting alleged mishandling of their Korans— claims the military adamantly denies.
Such tactics and claims are standard operating procedure for al Qaeda and its ilk—literally. An al-Qaeda training manual offers jihadists 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:
That last piece of advice is perhaps the most compelling reason Guantanamo detainees should not be transferred to stateside prisons. The president notes, “No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons.” But escape is not what worries those opposed to stateside transfer. What worries them 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 be released—something they cannot do from Guantanamo.
Radicalization is a serious enough problem that the Department of Homeland Security announced in 2011 a federal-state effort to thwart “terrorist use of prisons for radicalization and recruitment.” Congressional testimony reveals that dozens of Americans who were radicalized to jihadism while in U.S. prisons “have traveled to Yemen to train with al Qaeda.”
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, nearly 600 non-militants may have been killed. According to a New York Times portrait 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.”
This, too, has impacted America’s international standing. “In 17 of 20 countries,” a Pew survey found, “more than half disapprove of U.S. drone attacks.” According to Pew, the drone war feeds “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.”
When placed side by side, these two responses to jihadist terrorism—Guantanamo and drone strikes—bring us back to that same hard question: 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?