Ever since the United States started airlifting prisoners from Afghanistan to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, there have been criticisms of “Gitmo.” Recently, President Bush’s chief military adviser, Admiral Michael Mullen, joined ranks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. John McCain, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush himself in expressing a desire for the facility to be shut down. Now we should be moving past the question of whether Guantanamo should be closed and into a discussion of how and when it should happen.
Unfortunately, while many U.S. officials now understand that Guantanamo has become much more of a liability to the United States than an asset, there are still diehard Gitmo-supporters. Former governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said that the facility is “not [a] gulag; this is a modern prison which treats people with dignity and respect.” Romney also mentioned that that we should “double Guantanamo” and that “[t]he food down there is unbelievable.”
So, what are the facts to date concerning Guantanamo, and what would be the implications of pulling the plug?
To begin with, Guantanamo has been a remarkably inefficient, error-prone facility, which has produced few results. While it was established to house the so-called “worst of the worst,” supporters of al Qaeda and the Taliban picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan, many of those captured turned out to be harmless bystanders. In fact, scores were seized by bounty hunters far away from the battlefield and sold for thousands of dollars. At one time there were over 600 detainees, but that number has dwindled to approximately 277. Hundreds have been sent back to their home countries, and only four are facing military trials after being formally charged with crimes. In the six years since Guantanamo opened its doors, exactly one person has been convicted of any crime, and that was through a plea bargain. There have been more suicides at Guantanamo than convictions.
But perhaps worse, the facility has become an international symbol of U.S. hypocrisy and lawlessness. Many detainees claim to have been tortured or otherwise abused at Guantanamo, and inmates have languished for years without charges being brought against them. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees should be able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention in federal courts, the Bush administration pushed through the Military Commissions Act, which strips detainees of that right. This poorly-conceived legislation essentially gives the president the unchallenged power to determine which non-Americans are enemies of the country, and the ability to hold them indefinitely without being charged with a crime. The court is currently considering whether these habeas corpus-stripping laws are constitutional.
Are some of the remaining inmates at Guantanamo dangerous? Certainly yes. But contrary to the assertions of some, no one is calling for these individuals to be summarily released. There are other options for dealing with these detainees that would uphold the rule of law and not jeopardize our national security. For all its faults, the United States still has one of best criminal justice systems in the world, and has already successfully prosecuted dozens of terrorist suspects. But in the end, whether or not the detainees at Guantanamo are transferred to Leavenworth prison in Kansas, as McCain has suggested, or are processed through an improved military commission system, what is essential is that America begins to live by its due process ideals once again, and stop determining that individuals are guilty until proven innocent.
Ultimately, if one compares the meager benefit of keeping Guantanamo open to the enormous damage the facility has caused to America’s image and reputation in the world, there is no contest. Guantanamo is now beyond redemption, and is devastating our ability to be persuasive in the global battle of ideas. According to polls, more than two-thirds of Americans understand this and want the facility to be closed down. It’s past time for our leaders to take real action to end this national embarrassment. If the United States is to resume its position of global leadership and once again be a role model for human rights and democracy, it’s going to have to do better.
Spencer P. Boyer is a regular contributor to The Root.