National Security Network

Guantanamo Bay Must Be Closed to Keep America Safe

Print this page
Report 22 January 2010

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Guantanamo Bay


A year from the day the President pledged to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, a task force led by the Justice Department issued its recommendations on how to get the job done safely.  The task force -made  up of representatives from the Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense departments along with the CIA and FBI - looked at the individual detainees on a case by case basis, determining the best route for bringing terrorists to justice and keeping America safe.  These task force recommendations are an important step towards the goal of closing the detention center, itself a step in the larger goal of making America's counterterrorism strategy more effective.  Military and civilian experts agree that closing the facility will undercut terrorist recruitment, remove an obstacle for international cooperation against terrorism, and spotlight the resilience of the rule of law and American institutions.  Overheated conservative rhetoric and the legacy of the Bush administration's "sloppy" and incompetent handling of detainees have contributed to delays and obstacles.  But the facts laid out by military and intelligence leaders remain the same - closing the facility will make America safer.

Closing Guantanamo a vital facet of overall counterterrorism strategy.  As Rep. Jane Harman (D - CA) explained earlier this month, "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."  The impact of closing the facility would be felt across a broad range of U.S. counter-terror efforts:

Closing Guantanamo will undercut the terrorist movements that use the facility to rally recruits to their extremist cause.  Matthew Alexander - the pseudonym of the Air Force Major and interrogator who, without using torture, extracted the information that led to finding the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi - says that keeping the prison open is a powerful recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and creates difficulties for interrogators trying to persuade people to provide information about future terrorist attacks. He told the New York Times that, "The longer it stays open the more cost it will have in U.S. lives."  Jon Soltz, the director of, along with 2,000 other combat veterans made a similar point about recruitment in letter saying "Every day that the facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open and detainees are held there without trial is another day that terror networks have an effective recruiting poster." [New York Times, 1/21/10]

Closing Guantanamo will remove a key obstacle to greater international cooperation on counterterrorism.  International cooperation helps to ensure that terrorists seeking to harm Americans never reach our border.  A report released this week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) recommended: "U.S. government cooperation with foreign partners must be redoubled across the counterterrorism spectrum: Information-sharing, counterterrorism and law enforcement training, and border control are all areas where allies will benefit from cooperation."  But as Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Lehner, the man responsible for setting up the Guantanamo facility, said to the Los Angeles Times, the facility caused the U.S. to lose the moral high ground in the eyes of the world: "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." [SFRC, 1/20/10. Brig. Gen. Michael Lehner, 9/25/09]

Closing Guantanamo is 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, the President's terrorism and homeland security advisor John 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." [John Brennan, 1/03/10. Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, 1/05/10]

[Washington Post, 1/22/10. President Obama, 1/05/10]

Complications in closing Guantanamo Bay are rooted in Bush administration incompetence and abuses.  The Bush administration had no entity that was responsible for detainees, which resulted in "scattered" files, interagency "food fights," and no comprehensive system.  Last January, the Washington Post reported that upon taking office, Obama's "legal and national security officials -- barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees -- discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them... Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner."  This incompetence led to a careless process for determining which detainees were released under the Bush administration - which in turn is believed to have allowed the release, before Obama's inauguration -- of those few detainees who have returned to the fight.  One Obama administration official involved in detainee affairs, "was critical of the Bush administration for what the official said was a sloppy, ad hoc process for determining which detainees would be released," according to the Washington Post.  Greg Sergeant writes, "The [Administration] official suggested that the possibility that all the recidivists were released under Bush shows that the previous administration didn't do the work of screening detainees slated for release that the Obama administration is doing."  The Bush administration's lax record-keeping and resort to torture created another complication by ruining court cases against individuals who might otherwise easily have been convicted and condemned.  As Jake Tapper reports, "The NSS [National Security Staff] will also consider what to do with individuals categorized as too dangerous to release - those whom the president described in May 2009 as ‘people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases, because evidence may be tainted, but who, nonetheless, pose a threat to the security of the United States.'"  [Washington Post, 1/25/09. Washington Post, 1/7/09. Greg Sergeant, 1/07/10. ABC News, 1/22/10]

Conservatives seek to grant Al Qaeda victory by pushing to keep Guantanamo open.  Conservative critics have continued to ignore the views of countless national security experts - and even former President Bush -- and blindly 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 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."  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." The new Senator-elect from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, has also joined the attacks.  In an interview earlier this month, Brown said the underpants bomber "should have been shipped down to Guantanamo Bay and interrogated."

But, recognizing that Guantanamo serves as one of al Qaeda's biggest recruiting tools, President Obama has held steadfast in his decision to close the prison. "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."  Alberto Mora, the Navy General Counsel in the Bush administration,  made a similar point when he testified before Congress, explaining that the stain on America's image caused by Guantanamo Bay served as an extremist recruiting tool that led directly to American deaths: "Serving U.S. flag-rank officers... maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."  By pushing to keep Guantanamo open, conservatives are putting our troops at risk and granting al Qaeda a propaganda victory.  [President Obama, 1/5/10. Alberto Mora, 6/17/08. John Boehner, Politico, 12/30/09. Pete Hoekstra, 12/29/09. Mitch McConnell, USA Today, 1/6/10. Scott Brown, Real Clear Politics, 1/6/10.]

What We're Reading

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates continues to promote reconciliation with some Taliban fighters while visiting Pakistan. American Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry has expressed concern over new local militias contributing to security duties, while NATO announced a new top civilian post to match that of General Stanley McChrystal, the top military commander in Afghanistan.

Vice President Joseph Biden will visit Iraq to help ameliorate the tensions created by the Iraqi government's ban of hundreds of Sunni parliamentary candidates for suspected Baathist Party ties.

The hunt for survivors of Haiti's earthquake has slowed, but humanitarian operations have intensified, with relief workers sending food to imperiled orphans and truckloads of water and generators to the capital.

A report of an Iranian minister shaking hands with his Israeli counterpart is sparking furor in Iran.

Efforts to root out Al Qaeda from Yemen may be more difficult than elsewhere, as Al Qaeda's affiliates are mostly homegrown, with strong local roots and patrons. And now a Tennessee man accused of killing a soldier outside a Little Rock, Arkansas military recruiting station last year asked a judge to change his plea to guilty, claiming for the first time that he is connected to a Yemen-based affiliate of Al Qaeda.

European officials have agreed to accelerate the drafting of a common strategy with the United States to improve airline security during a meeting with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

A highly successful program by the US military to recruit skilled immigrants who live in this country temporarily has run into a roadblock, leaving thousands of potential recruits in limbo.

Angola's Parliament approved a new constitution on Thursday that will further concentrate power in the hands of President José Eduardo dos Santos, who for the past 30 years has governed a nation that, although rich in oil and diamonds, is poverty-stricken.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a curt, cautionary statement on its website, rebuffing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's call for internet freedom.

Commentary of the Day

The New York Times strongly urges the United States to pressure Iraq to allow Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, in addition to hundreds of other Sunni candidates, to run for parliament.

The Washington Post suggest that Cuba would greatly improve its chances at gaining a more liberalized travel policy from the Obama administration if it released detained American aid contractor Alan Gross.

The LA Times wonders what the fate of Colombian human rights activist Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango will be, considering the politicization of his activities by the Colombian government.