An Exit Strategy From Detention at Guantanamo
By Adam Smith
It is time to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). Until it is closed, it will remain a symbol of attempts to avoid the rule of law. While the detainees are treated humanely and in a manner consistent with international law, al-Qaeda continues to evoke GTMO when rallying extremists to its cause. Hunger strikes, health care problems of an aging detainee population, and excessive costs are currently the most visible problems at Guantanamo Bay. Until GTMO is closed, the United States’ moral authority in upholding its values and promoting human rights will continue to suffer. Kenneth Wainstein, a senior national security lawyer at the Department of Justice Office under President George W. Bush, recently summarized GTMO’s status well: "The situation is not sustainable. We need an exit strategy."
The Bush Administration argued that detainees should be placed at GTMO to ensure public safety, to limit the costs of their detention, and to assert murky legal distinctions regarding their status. These reasons no longer make sense, if they ever did.
Detaining suspected terrorists on U.S. soil does not jeopardize our security. We hold hundreds of dangerous terrorists in prisons in the United States, and none of them have escaped. Current long-term residents of the Florence, Colorado, “supermax” prison include Ramzi Yousef (for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), Omar Abdel-Rahman (for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks), and Richard Reid (the al-Qaida ``shoe bomber'').
It is argued that detaining and, when appropriate, trying terrorists in the United States are expensive undertakings. They are, but detaining and trying GTMO detainees in the United States would be substantially more affordable than doing so at GTMO. Per capita, GTMO may be the most expensive detention facility in the world, with costs spiraling upward. Some estimates have put the cost at about $1.5 million per inmate. Additionally, the Department of Defense is now requesting hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade the “temporary” facilities at GTMO. Given the Administration’s desire to close the facility, carrying out expensive upgrades to temporary facilities at GTMO makes no sense, especially when better alternatives are available.
Some also argue that the GTMO detainees should not be tried in the Federal Court System because they will be afforded the same rights as American citizens. This is a bogus argument. The Supreme Court has repeatedly made it clear that GTMO detainees are, and will remain, under the supervision of the federal courts. More importantly, the Federal Court System, which has tried and convicted more than 400 defendants for violations of international terrorism laws, is one of our most powerful tools in prosecuting suspected terrorists.
If there are no benefits to holding detainees at GTMO, what are the costs to the United States? First, the United States appears disingenuous asking the rest of the world to uphold human rights, while it operates what many perceive to be an institution designed to evade the rule of law. Second, the perception of an oppressive United States continues to fire resentment around the world and to spur our enemies toward aggression. Third, GTMO affects our ability to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with our allies because they don’t want any of their national citizens sent to GTMO.
How should we close GTMO? First and foremost, Congress must remove the unreasonable restrictions it has placed on the Executive Branch regarding the transfer of GTMO detainees and the President should submit a plan to close the facility. Removing these unreasonable restrictions would allow the Administration to gradually reduce the detainee population and develop a sensible detention policy. As Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, recently argued, we do it by returning those who can be returned to their home countries to be confined or monitored in a safe and secure manner. We do it by creating an office in the White House charged with effecting these transfers. We try those detainees who need to be prosecuted, either by our able civilian court system or by military commissions. Finally, we hold whoever must be held off the battlefield by detaining them at secure facilities in the United States.
We can reduce the detainee population by changing the unreasonable congressional prohibitions on detaining and trying GTMO detainees in the United States. There are currently three detainees at GTMO who have been convicted by military commissions. Now that they have been convicted, why not have them serve their sentences in Federal prisons?
Detaining enemy combatants in the United States, who need to be kept off the battlefield but who can’t be tried or responsibly transferred, can be done according to transparent and reviewable procedures involving judges and counsel, not just untrained military officers. Start the interagency periodic review process that has been stalled. Review the justification for continued detention annually. Let the world see what we are doing. Continue to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross full access to detainees and allow other NGOs more access.
Finally, we should lead the effort to create an international framework for detention, not hide from it. The threat from al Qaeda and their allies is unlikely to go away anytime soon, so it is vital that we get this right.
GTMO was never a good idea. It is an even worse idea now. Let’s start the process to close GTMO now.
Representative Adam Smith (WA-9) is the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee.