July 1, 2009  

Transition strategy: A new Gitmo

Don’t close Guantanamo; transform it

By Beltway standards, it was high drama. Fresh from his first rebuff by congressional Democrats over closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an embattled President Barack Obama made a stirring speech at the National Archives, calling on the American people to reject fear-mongering and balance national security needs and American values. A few blocks away, former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the administration of playing politics with national security. The president condemned enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding as wrongheaded and unnecessary, while the former vice president saluted their contribution to preventing another Sept. 11-type of attack on American soil. Obama reiterated that he would close Guantanamo by year’s end, and Cheney critiqued his lack of a plan and the intention to bring terrorists to American soil.

For all the wind and drama, however, neither of these distinguished speakers had real solutions for the Guantanamo problem set. Neither leaving Guantanamo in place nor transferring all of its problems to the U.S. will advance the national interest. We shouldn’t close Guantanamo, we should transform it.

Guantanamo is many things to many people. To the far left and civil libertarians, it is a symbol of failed policy and torture. Enhanced interrogation, indefinite imprisonment and inadequate judicial review were all part of the litany of Guantanamo’s sins. To the right wing, it is a necessary facility, one required by the exigencies of a dirty war. To the bipartisan NIMBY (not in my backyard) chorus in Congress, bringing Guantanamo home is a political problem of the first order. To the technical observer, Guantanamo is a multipurpose, well-run confinement facility with new facilities for prisoner quality of life and trials of any sort.

Abroad, Guantanamo — along with Abu Gharib, the CIA’s secret prisons and various alleged war crimes — has deeply hurt our image. For our European allies, Guantanamo is an icon for everything that was wrong with the Bush war on terrorism. Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted in a May interview on the “Today” show: “The truth is, it’s probably one of the finest prisons in the world today, but it has a taint. The name itself is a condemnation.”

Not the worst

Ironically, Guantanamo, or “Gitmo” (from GTMO, the Navy’s abbreviation for the base) was never a hotbed of the most extreme interrogation techniques. Today, prisoners there are regulated by the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — soon to be further liberalized by the Obama administration — and the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which has taken the steam out of enhanced interrogations. In February, a Defense Department investigation team found that the prison fully met Geneva Conventions standards for humane treatment of prisoners. The transformation of Gitmo has already begun.

The president, however, playing to cheering galleries at home and in Europe, announced in the first days of his administration that he would close Gitmo within a year. Despite still not having a public plan, he has reaffirmed his decision. He should reconsider. There are many problems surrounding the detainees at Gitmo, but closing the facility and bringing the inmates here will not solve any of them. Indeed, the political penalty for flip-flopping on this issue will be far less than the trouble accrued by bringing Gitmo to the U.S.

First, the U.S. government will be able to try only a handful of inmate-terrorists in federal courts. There is no need to bring most of the Gitmo population stateside so that a few prisoners can be near federal courts or federal prisons. Individuals who will go through civil trials in the U.S. should be handled individually.

Second, for war criminals, the best facility for military commissions is located at Gitmo. The president has already directed the further reform of the commission process. What is to be gained by holding military commission trials for up to 70 detainees on U.S. soil? Will new-style military commissions play better in Peoria than they will in Guantanamo?

Third, foreign countries — even our closest allies — have been slow to take back “their” inmates. To send the entire population of Gitmo to the continental U.S. would mean opening a long-term prison in the U.S. for two kinds of detainees: people awaiting repatriation, and extremists of various stripes who can’t be tried or put before a military commission.

Of the remaining 250 detainees, only 80 may be tried or subjected to military commissions. An unknown number of other detainees are highly belligerent or have special skills — such as training on military explosives — that will make them hard to release under any circumstances. They will be held without judicial process for decades, regardless of their location. Will it be any easier to hold these dangerous, recalcitrant or unreformable detainees in the U.S. than it will be at Gitmo?

Finally, during the same week as the debate between the president and the former vice president on how to deal with detainee issues, the Pentagon revealed that 14 percent of the detainees released to their home countries — about 74 men — may be back at war with the U.S. in one fashion or another. Senior Taliban generals and senior al-Qaida leaders are counted among the Gitmo alumni released to their home countries. The issue of Gitmo is not just about human rights and public relations; it is also about our future security. Unfortunately, moving the detainee operation here solves none of the problems hidden under the tainted word “Guantanamo.”

A model prison

Despite the political costs, the president should not close Gitmo; he should transform it into a model prison. To begin, the Defense Department should maintain two prisons at Gitmo: a “hard side” for recalcitrants and those about to be tried or subjected to commission proceedings; and a “light side” for former combatants with potential for reform or repatriation. The hard side should focus on incarceration, trials, commissions and intelligence gathering; the other prison should focus on reform and education.

Many of the radicals at Gitmo are illiterate and were manipulated into terrorism or insurgency by quasireligious figures. They should be the subject of educational activities and counseling. Deradicalization counseling has progressed well (not perfectly) in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. We should develop it further at Gitmo, perhaps on a multinational basis. In time, through education and deradicalization, officials will be able to develop a parole system for many of the detainees. Prisoners can earn a move upward or downward, based on their behavior and demonstrated attitude toward reform. Those radicals who resist the light side can be sent back to the hard side of Gitmo. Those who become literate and show progress can prove themselves worthy of parole or repatriation.

More than 800 detainees have passed through Guantanamo, and 534 of them have been repatriated. Fifty more are reportedly ready for repatriation. Obama should continue to use his good offices to pressure the allies to do what most of them have sworn to do: take back their own people, responsibly and expeditiously.

When these programs are underway, the new Gitmo should be made the subject of tours and visits by foreign officials. Police and prison experts from Europe and the Muslim world — as well as learned imams — should be invited to conferences at Gitmo to figure out how to deal with extremists and extremism. Gitmo would remain a place for enlightened imprisonment, but it could also become a center for international study and consultation. Pundits who criticize the new Gitmo should be asked: Have you been there lately? If the answer is no, they should be invited to come and see for themselves.

The new Gitmo shouldn’t become a theme park, but it should be a showcase for American creativity, American values and commonsense security measures, fully compatible with the documents housed in our National Archives. A transformed, transparent Gitmo can over time end the tainted image problem that it suffers under. We will accomplish more by reforming and building on Gitmo than we will by simply tearing it down and transferring all its problems on to the territory of the U.S.

Joseph Collins is a retired Army colonel who teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.