National Security Network

Guantanamo Makes Us Weaker and Must Be Closed

Print this page
Report 21 May 2009

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security bush Cheney Defense Guantanamo Guantanamo Bay Obama Pentagon Petraeus Torture


Today President Obama spoke at the National Archives where, surrounded by the documents that contain the principles that founded America, he confirmed the need for America to return to these principles and values by closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The detention center is a tremendous blight on the image and moral authority of the United States and has served as a major terrorist recruiting tool. Yet conservatives insist that Guantanamo remain open, launching a new line of attack that argues closing Guantanamo will bring terrorists into our backyard and will endanger Americans. This argument is ridiculous, or as the President said, is not “rational,” since dangerous detainees would be transferred to some of the most secure prison facilities in the world – much more secure than the makeshift facility in Guantanamo. Furthermore, Bush administration holdovers have leaked to the press that 14 percent of detainees that the Bush administration released had returned to “militant activity.” But this claim is highly dubious, considering that there is no clarity as to what the Pentagon report defines as “militant activity” – a previous report laughably characterized a detainee who wrote an op-ed in a newspaper as having “returned to the battlefield.” Additionally, those 525 detainees that were released were done so under the haphazard and incompetent process of the Bush administration. As President Obama noted, his administration has inherited an absolute mess from the Bush administration, making the logistics of closing Guantanamo difficult. But as he concluded, we must close Guantanamo because it has “weakened America.”

Guantanamo is against our best principles, blighting America’s reputation, and endangering American lives – it must be closed.
  The damage done to the U.S. by the Bush administration’s use of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay is immense.  It has severely hurt America’s reputation, as shown by a 2007 BBC poll of 25 different countries, which found 67% of respondents disapproving of Guantanamo.  This correlated with dramatic downward trends in overall opinion of the U.S., with 49% of respondents saying that the U.S. plays a largely negative role in the world.  Guantanamo has not just damaged public opinion – it has also cost American lives as well.  A Retired Air Force Major who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander – the interrogator who used legal means to locate the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - says that these programs are responsible for thousands of Americans’ deaths, “I listened time and time again to foreign fighters, and Sunni Iraqis, state that the number one reason they had decided to pick up arms and join Al Qaeda was the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the authorized torture and abuse at Guantanamo Bay... The number-one reason foreign fighters gave for coming to Iraq to fight is the torture and abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”  For these reasons, the facility must be closed.  A bipartisan panel made up of Secretaries Kissinger, Albright, Powell, Baker, and Christopher all agreed that closing Guantanamo Bay is vital for repairing the damage it has caused to America’s image. As James Baker, Secretary of State for George H.W. Bush, said: “Close Guantanamo. We were on a panel together several months ago, and we all agreed, one of the best things that could happen would be to close Guantanamo, which is a very serious blot upon our reputation.” In a 2007 letter to his troops in Iraq, General Petraeus wrote that the torture, promulgated at Guantanamo, makes America lose the “moral high ground” and strengthens our enemies: “This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground... Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary.” [BBC, 1/23/07. Harper’s Magazine, 12/18/08. CNN, 9/20/08. David Petraeus, 5/11/07]

Conservatives are out to lunch on detainee policy.  Conservatives, led by Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, have resorted to theatrics and hysteria as they criticize the president. For example, Dick Cheney has sought to scare the American public about closing Guantanamo Bay, saying on Face the Nation that, “in effect, what we’ve seen happen with respect to the Obama administration as they came to power is they have moved to take down a lot of those policies we put in place that kept the nation safe for nearly eight years from a follow-on terrorist attack like 9/11.” And when asked if the Obama administration has left America more vulnerable to attack, Cheney said, “That’s my belief.” And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, moved into the realm of hysterics, saying on closing Guantanamo that “the idea we're going to put alleged terrorists on welfare and have you pay for them and me pay for them, so they get to be integrated into American society.” The most recent argument came yesterday from Bush administration holdovers still working in the Defense Department “acting to protect their jobs,” who leaked an unreleased report on detainee recidivism that contains unsubstantiated claims and statistics. “The report, a copy of which was made available to The New York Times, says the Pentagon believes that 74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism or militant activity, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent... Among the 74 former prisoners that the report says are again engaged in terrorism, 29, have been identified by name... the Pentagon has said that the remaining 45 could not be named because of national security and intelligence-gathering concerns... The Pentagon has provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists...Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.” Mark Denbeaux of Seton Hall University Law School notes “the characterization of 'returned to the fight' is far broader than they would like to admit... So what they mean by 'return to the fight' is engaging in propaganda battles and criticisms of the United States at home and abroad’” – that include acts such as writing op-eds or participating in documentary films. [FOX News, 5/11/09. Bill Kristol, 5/08/09. CBS Face the Nation, 5/10/09. NY Times, 5/20/09. VOA, 1/14/09]

Despite the logistical challenges of closing Guantanamo, it must be closed because it makes us weaker. The Bush administration left behind a mess on detainee policy which will take a great deal of time and energy to responsibly clean up. As President Obama said today, “I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. We are cleaning up something that is – quite simply – a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country. Indeed, the legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks in Washington would be taking place whether or not I decided to close Guantanamo. For example, the court order to release seventeen Uighur detainees took place last fall – when George Bush was President. The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents. In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.” To clean up this mess, the president added, “There is a core principle that we will apply to all of our actions: even as we clean up the mess at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from the other branches of government, and seek the strongest and most sustainable legal framework for addressing these issues in the long-term.” Despite the challenge ahead, Guantanamo must be closed because it is in America’s national security interests. As the president explained, “the record is clear:  rather than keep us safer, the prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security. It is a rallying cry for our enemies. It sets back the willingness of our allies to work with us in fighting an enemy that operates in scores of countries. By any measure, the costs of keeping it open far exceed the complications involved in closing it. That is why I argued that it should be closed throughout my campaign. And that is why I ordered it closed within one year.” [Barack Obama, 5/21/09]

What We’re Reading

President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney will both give speeches on national security today.  President Obama met with human rights groups before his speech, which is expected to focus on detainee policy.

A series of bombings in Iraq killed at least 66 people and 3 U.S. soldiers in the last two days.

The FBI arrested four people in an alleged New York City synagogue-bombing plot.

A judge in Milan ruled that the case against Italian and American intelligence officials over extraordinary rendition can go forward but without referring to classified information.

Pakistan and India have begun sharing intelligence on Islamic extremists under U.S. prodding, an unprecedented cooperation.

Elements of the Taliban engaged in preliminary talks make U.S. withdrawal a condition of any possible peace agreement with the Afghan government.

Israel removed an illegal settler outpost in the West Bank, a possible gesture to President ObamaIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is willing to talk to Syria without preconditions.

British Army Gurkha soldiers who retired before 1997 with at least four years of service will be allowed to settle in Britain after an embarrassing public campaign for their rights.

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Serbia for the second stop on his trip through the Balkans.

Commentary of the Day

Roger Cohen describes the “miracles of realism” as evidenced in Vietnam, but is not sure how to apply those lessons.

Khalil Shikaki writes that Palestinian elections would be a “risk worth taking.”

The Wall Street Journal describes Yemen’s “terror problem.”

Former Army Ranger Sgt. Brian Hughes adds another military voice to those urging the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.