National Security Network

Closing Guantanamo Remains Vital to American Security

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Report 7 January 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security Guantanamo Bay


News that some detainees released by President Bush have returned to militant activity is a strong reminder of the persistent challenges America faces in dealing with terrorism.  But while this reminder should make us all vigilant, it does not change the national security imperatives for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  As experts from both sides of the aisle have testified, the facility is a blight on America's image and a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda which has led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans.  The reality is that the facility must be closed.  The Administration must do everything it can to ensure that ex-detainees do not return to the fight - beginning by improving the apparently lax record-keeping and monitoring of its predecessors - while moving forward to shut down a symbol that has done more for Al Qaeda recruitment than any of its former inmates.

Sadly, certain conservatives have opted for a different path.  In defiance of experienced national security professionals, even members of their own party, they have recklessly pushed to keep the facility open.  Their actions are tantamount to giving Al Qaeda a major propaganda victory, as there is little the organization would want more than to continue this recruiting and propaganda boon.  These cynical attempts to score political points by inspiring fear are ultimately a distraction from the important task of keeping Americans safe.

Despite reports that detainees are returning to the battlefield, closing Guantanamo Bay remains vital to US national security."Administration officials said Wednesday that a classified Pentagon report concludes that of some 560 detainees transferred abroad from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, about one in five has engaged in, or is suspected of engaging in, terrorism or militant activity," according to the New York Times.  As the Times explains, however, these detainees were largely released by the Bush administration.  According to an administration official quoted in the story, the White House had "been presented with no information that suggests that any of the detainees transferred by this administration have returned to the fight." Greg Sargent of Who Runs Government reported that according to this same official, the Bush administration had not done the work "the work of screening detainees slated for release that the Obama administration is doing."  Moreover, as Seton Hall Law School professor Mark Denbeaux has noted, the Pentagon's technique for classifying recidivism is very broad, and even includes acts such as writing op-eds or participating in documentary films.  We still don't know-again, because of shortcomings in Bush Administration recordkeeping, how many of these people pose an actual threat to the United States.

In spite of this news, the Obama administration has held steadfast to its decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention prison. As Rep. Jane Harman said in discussing responses to the bombing attempt, "I think if we really want to do counterterrorism right, we have to eliminate one of Al Qaeda's top recruiting tools, that's Guantanamo Bay."

Countless senior experts from both sides of the aisle have advocated closing Guantanamo, including: 

Secretary Gates:  "Well, I think -- I think it [closing Gitmo] has proven more complicated than anticipated. I will be the first to tell you that, when the president-elect's national security new team met in Chicago on December 7th, I was one of those who argued for a firm deadline. Because I said that's the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.   And you have to extend that date, if at least you have a strong plan, showing you're making progress in that direction, then it shouldn't be a problem to extend it. And we'll just see whether that has to happen or not." 

Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of the Air Force Major and interrogator who extracted the information - without using torture - that led to finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "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. My team of interrogators knew that we would become al-Qaeda's best recruiters if we resorted to torture."

The Marine Corps General who set up the camp and established the rules- originally in line with the Geneva Convention- spoke out on the need to close the detention center.  The LA Times quotes Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert as saying, "'I think we lost the moral high ground. For those who do not think much of the moral high ground, that is not that significant... But for those who think our standing in the international community is important, we need to stand for American values. You have to walk the walk, talk the talk.'"

[NY Times, 1/7/10. The Hill, 1/5/10. Greg Sargent, 1/07/10. VOA, 1/14/09. Jane Harman, via CNN, 1/4/10. Secretary Gates, CNN, 9/27/09. Harper's Magazine, 12/18/08. LA Times, 9/25/09]

Though closing Guantanamo will not be easy, its closure is a central element of the Administration's overall counterterrorism strategy.  The connection between the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas and ongoing instability and extremist activity in Yemen - home to 92 of the detainees held by the Obama administration - has underscored just how complicated closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will be.  The Obama administration has appreciated this.  On Tuesday, the President explained that given the ongoing security situation in Yemen, the U.S. "will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time."  John Brennan, the President's chief advisor on terrorism and homeland security, elaborated on the Administration's careful, methodical approach, saying, "We are looking at it every day. We're not going to make any decisions that are going to put people at risk. We will decide and determine when -- when we should send additional people back."

While the administration rightfully has exercised caution, closing Guantanamo is a critical dimension of the President's overall counterterrorism strategy.  As the President explained on Tuesday,: "But make no mistake:  We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda.  In fact, that was an explicit rationale for the formation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."  Closing Guantanamo is also crucial for returning to the best traditions of American justice, traditions which have been consistently shown to be the best instruments for countering those who would do us harm.  On Sunday, Brennan affirmed that our identity as a nation of laws is inseparable from the fight against terrorists: "we need to make sure that we are a country of laws and we maintain that standard so that we are able to treat these individuals the way they should be treated, prosecute them if we have the information available to us, transfer them back, but make sure that, if they're transferred back, the countries that receive them take the appropriate steps to safeguard us and them.." As former Oklahoma congressman and member of the GOP leadership  Mickey Edwards wrote bluntly for the Atlantic, "It's not because we love terrorists, it's because we hate them and we are going to subject them to the thing they most fear - justice, democracy, the rules of a free society."  [President Obama, 1/5/10. John Brennan, 1/03/10. Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, 1/05/10]

Conservatives seek to grant Al Qaeda victory by pushing to keep Guantanamo open. Despite the views of seasoned national security professionals, certain conservatives have used every opportunity to push for the detention facility at Guantanamo to remain open.  Following the failed terrorist attack on Christmas Day, Politico reported, "House Minority Leader John Boehner on Wednesday echoed a Republican chorus of criticism directed at the Obama administration's response to the Christmas terror plot, saying Obama should not close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. ‘It's time for the president to halt terrorist transfers to other countries, including Yemen, and to re-evaluate his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo,' he said in a statement released Wednesday." Rep. Pete Hoekstra has also criticized Obama's "brazen and naive pledge to close Guantanamo Bay without any idea where to put the Jihadists who will never stop trying to do us harm." Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has also argued, "Guantanamo remains the proper place for holding terrorists, especially those who may not be able to be detained as securely in a third country."

As Mickey Edwards wrote in The Atlantic, "The problem here is that those who are whining the loudest, whether it's a nutcase Senator or a callous talk show ratings-chaser, are, at bottom, people who apparently don't really buy into America.  They claim to be patriotic - that is, to love their country - but they seem not to really understand what, exactly, America is, or what it stands for, or what "to be American" really means."

To this tune, earlier this year, 11 former senior military, intelligence and national security officials, including former Guantanamo Bay Tribunal Officer Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, former National Security Council Counterterrorism Chief Richard Clarke and former Senior CIA Officer Margaret Henoch rebuked those who spread "fear in order to score political points, and perpetuat[ing]the Bush/Cheney era strategy of seeking political victories instead of doing what's right to protect the country."  The letter also warned that "[w]e should also not allow the destructive politics of fear, which tarnish America's national security imperatives, to dictate the debate."

[John Boehner, Politico, 12/30/09. Pete Hoekstra, 12/29/09. Mitch McConnell, USA Today, 1/6/10. Mickey Edwards, The Atlantic, 1/5/10. National Security Officials Rebuke Rep. Hoekstra for Politicizing Guantanamo Debate, 8/27/09]

What We're Reading

During a presentation to the United Nations Security Council, UN Envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide warned coalition forces to properly implement a civilian strategy and avoid over militarizing the mission.

The latest missile strike along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has killed 13 militants in a training camp. Meanwhile, Islamic seminaries in Karachi try to combat the perception that their schools are outposts for Taliban recruiters.

An investigation by the Iranian parliament of torture at Iranian prisons implicated a senior official and ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the deaths of at least three detainees who were arrested in June during antigovernment demonstrations

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has ruled out direct U.S. military action in Yemen. Yemeni authorities have also announced the arrest of 3 Al Qaeda militants.

A federal grand jury has handed down a six-count indictment to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted Christmas Day bomber.

Months before a national election, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown  survived a secret ballot of confidence orchestrated by two senior figures in his governing Labour Party.

The leader of the Cuban parliament accused a U.S. government contractor arrested in December of being a spy for American intelligence agencies.

China attempts to reverse their nation's brain drain by coaxing scientists to study and work back home.

The French government announced that it will set up a special judicial unit to investigate and bring charges against people accused of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity in France or abroad.

An anti-Egypt rally in southern Gaza turned deadly when demonstrators rushed the border fence and stoned Egyptian troops on the other side, leading to an exchange of gunfire and the death of an Egyptian soldier.

Indian security forces stormed a hotel in Kashmir and shot dead two suspected Islamic militants, ending a nearly 24-hour gun battle.

A lawsuit brought by US soldiers against contractor KBR highlights the legal doctrine that prevents soldiers on active duty from seeking compensation for injuries sustained by negligence in war zones.

Commentary of the Day

The Washington Post says the Ugandan Parliament's revision of their anti-homosexuality bill, which changes the punishment for being gay from death to life imprisonment, does not go far enough and that the legislation should be scrapped.

Paula Dobriansky argues that more American visible support for Tibetan autonomy will have pragmatic, tangible benefits for the US' relationship with China.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. urges patience in negotiations with the Japanese over a controversial Marine Corps Air Station on the island of Okinawa, in order not to politically undercut the new Japanese government.