If it weren’t an election year, or if the Republican leaders in Congress hadn’t decided long ago to resist nearly all of President Obama’s initiatives, there would be little opposition to his plan, announced Tuesday morning, to shut down the prison at Guantánamo.
The arguments against closing it may seem plausible at first glance, but they are all specious. Let’s take them one by one.
First, many critics fear the move would endanger Americans at home. When Obama declared near the start of his presidency that he would relocate the detainees to federal prisons, former Vice President Dick Cheney growled, “[T]o bring the worst terrorists inside the United States would be a cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.” Republican legislators and governors have been reciting this line of argument ever since.
What they don’t seem to realize is that, according to the latest figures from the Justice Department, maximum-security prisons inside the United States already house 349 convicted terrorists. Their presence in these massive facilities has not made life the slightest bit more perilous to anyone outside their walls.
Two other fears—that terrorists could escape or spread jihadist propaganda—are unlikely for similar reasons. First of all, in the past 20 years, according to a spokesman with the Bureau of Prisons, there has been just one escape from a maximum-security federal prison.
At the ADX Florence, the supermax prison in Colorado that is home to 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, and others, most of the prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. For one hour, they’re taken to a concrete room, indoors, to exercise. Their only windows face the sky, so they have no idea where they are within the prison. Phone calls are banned. The place is crammed with cameras and motion detectors.
There is opportunity for neither proselytizing nor escape.
One objection to closing Gitmo has some validity—the fear that the detainees, once freed, will return to the battlefield, whether in Afghanistan, Yemen, or some other theater. This might have been Cheney’s rationale for opposing the shutdown. The director of national intelligence submits to Congress a semiannual report titled “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” Of the 532 detainees relocated during the Bush presidency, according to the latest report, 111 (21 percent) are known to have resurfaced on some battlefield, and another 73 (14 percent) are suspected of having done so.
However, since Obama became president, according to this same report, just six of 121 freed detainees (5 percent) have returned to fighting, while another six are suspected of doing so. The reason for this decline is that, after the rash release ordered under Bush, defense and intelligence officials started taking greater precautions both in vetting the country offering to receive detainees and in monitoring their precise whereabouts.
The risk, then, has declined considerably, but there is still a risk. But weigh this against the cost of continuing to operate Guantánamo: the rallying cry that it still serves for jihadist recruiters; the assault it represents on America’s standing as a beacon of justice (few of the detainees have been formally charged with an offense, much less convicted of one); and (a new argument put forth by Obama in his announcement) the financial burden of continuing to run the place—$450 million a year, it turns out. There would be one-time costs involved in transferring the prisoners, but Obama said net savings would amount to $85 million a year.
All this for just 91 detainees of the 800 originally held. And 35 of them are caught in an administrative hold, having already been approved for relocation. That leaves just 56 detainees to be placed in facilities in the U.S. They could be spread among the supermax prisons with scarcely any notice.
The Republicans in Congress aren’t the only ones responsible for the glacial pace of progress in doing what’s right, safe, and economical about Gitmo. The Pentagon bureaucracy has also been sluggish. Obama’s first defense secretary, Robert Gates, wanted to move more quickly, but his docket was jammed with other issues (two wars, the Walter Reed scandal, firing unsuitable generals, killing unneeded weapons systems); his second, Leon Panetta, took little interest in the subject; his third, Chuck Hagel, actively resisted White House orders to move forward (he feared the chance of battlefield recidivism). Finally, Ash Carter, though slow in processing those detainees approved for release, has come through with a thorough report—submitted to Congress at the same time as Obama’s announcement—on how to get this done.
So it’s up to Congress, which means the chances are grim. In the past, when Obama has proposed taking steps toward closing the facility, the Republican-led Congress has passed measures forbidding the spending of any money to relocate Guantánamo detainees. It’s a good bet they’ll do the same again. And the next president will enter the White House, 16 years after the war in Afghanistan began and the first of those detainees were captured, with the same unnecessary blot on the flag.