Guantanamo Bay prison's five mythsKaren Greenburg in The Register Citizen, May 05, 2013
By Karen Greenberg
Renewing his push to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, President Obama this past week said what many of his critics have been saying for years — that it is “inefficient,” inspires new terrorists, alienates our allies and, above all, “is contrary to who we are.”
Coming in response to the detainee hunger strikers, whose numbers increase every day, Obama’s comments suggest that the inmates are close to accomplishing what others opposed to the prison have not: They’re making it necessary that their cases get resolved. Let’s revisit some myths about the prison.
1. The Guantanamo Bay prison is open for business.
Guantanamo Bay is in limbo. It’s neither closed nor fully open. The prison hasn’t accepted any new detainees since authorities brought Muhammad Rahim al Afghani there in March 2008 — several months after President George W. Bush announced his desire to close the camp. No one has been added since Obama took office. Instead, in recent months, non-U.S. citizens accused of international terrorism and apprehended abroad have been brought into federal custody; 12 are held in Manhattan and Brooklyn, awaiting trial or recently convicted. Much as in 2002, when Guantanamo Bay opened, the prison — and America’s indefinite detention policy — remain under a cloud of indecision and paralysis.
2. It’s impossible to close Guantanamo.
Resettling the detainees in their home countries or in other nations is a matter of political will on the part of the president, realism on the part of Congress and trust in the nation’s sizable counterterrorism measures. But it is doable.
Obama pledged this past week to renew his push for Congress to reduce restrictions on prisoner transfers. The president could start by finding allies who might change their minds, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., did last month, and support reversing the ban on transferring detainees to Yemen.
3. Guantanamo detainees have been treated more harshly than inmates in federal prisons.
Until the recent confrontations between guards and prisoners, Guantanamo held most of its detainees in relatively lenient conditions, especially compared with federal prisons. As recently as this past fall, as many as 130 Guantanamo detainees were living in communal areas, many with access to Skype, television and a soccer field. This more relaxed policy was based on the premise that creature comforts could compensate for the lack of hope and due process afforded to the detainees. Yet since the hunger strikes began in February, conditions have become harsher. The recent turn toward feeding tubes, individual cells and violence between detainees and guards has made Guantanamo more like a dungeon, its inmates tormented by lives without resolution or release.
4. The military commission system offers the best chance of convictions in the war on terror.
The commissions were well-intentioned, but the trials, including those of the Sept. 11 defendants, are taking forever. In federal court, they would have concluded long ago. Since the military commissions process began in 2006, only seven individuals have been convicted. All of those convictions are being challenged, two have been overturned and some of those remaining could still be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, hundreds have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the federal court system since 2001. At Guantanamo, only six of the remaining 166 detainees are in the process of being tried.
5. Guantanamo has indelibly stained America’s reputation.
If the hunger strikers die, Guantanamo will become an even stronger terrorist recruitment tool. While Obama missed the chance at the start of his presidency to show that detainees can be treated more justly and compassionately than they were under his predecessor, any positive change could begin to repair the damage to America’s reputation. The administration’s one-person-at-a-time approach to closing Guantanamo has proved fruitless.
Time is of the essence. Of the 100 hunger-striking detainees, four are hospitalized, and 23 are being force-fed. The best option is to release the inmates who can’t be tried, end the policy of detention outside the laws of war and restore the sense of moral dignity that has withered with every day of Guantanamo’s existence. As Obama said this past week, “It needs to stop.”