Monday, January 26, 2009

The Guantanamo Situation

There has been a lot written recently about the whole Guantanamo issue, after President Obama's decision to close it down. On the left, and among libertarians, the response has been positive, although there is some suspicion about the time-frame and the details. On the right, many would like to keep it open, and in general there is major concern about what to do with the prisoners, and whether it will be handled in a way that will make us less safe. As with many aspects of Bush administration policy, its use of Guantanamo was something that made sense in theory, but broke-down in execution.

What went wrong? The Bush administration rightly viewed these prisoners as special cases. They weren't POW's, and they weren't normal civilian criminals. They were presumed hostile aliens captured during our various conflicts. Their legal status was nebulous and highly debatable. The administration talked about using military tribunals to decide their fate. Again, this sounded reasonable in theory. But in practice, the administration dragged its feet, and basically just held some of the prisoners indefinitely, while foolishly releasing others. By the time they actually got around to military tribunals, it was too late to implement them, and they ran into legal difficulties. The negative publicity surrounding interrogations had turned legal opinion and the courts solidly against the administration. But the problems didn't start there.

No one should have been transferred to Guantanamo unless we were certain they were actually a terrorist. Why waste the resources to move mere suspects all the way to Guantanamo, and to house and feed them, if we were just going to release some later? Suspects and low-level individuals should have been dealt with elsewhere. It was also a terrible idea to interrogate prisoners at Guantanamo using questionable techniques. Again, the theory behind using Guantanamo, was to have a secure facility for holding those too dangerous to hold elsewhere, and to have military tribunals decide their fate. Using it as we did generated massive bad publicity and was totally unnecessary. Those individuals could have been fully interrogated in secret, by whatever means, and been transferred to Gitmo when we were done with them. Normal, completely above-board military interrogations could have continued there if needed. By proceeding the way they did, the Bush administration gave at least some credence to those hysterically shrieking that Gitmo was a form of gulag. They started with good intentions and tried to deal with a difficult problem, but fouled it up -- the story of the Bush administration.

So what now? I think the case is clear that the Guantanamo detention facility is now doing more harm than good. But that doesn't mean that we can't make things even worse. Treating these prisoners as civilian criminal defendants, giving them lawyers, and pretending they have U.S. constitutional rights are all horrible ideas. The only reason we should even consider such measures, is if an individual has the full support of his home country; and it demands that he be accorded certain rights under treaty. Otherwise, trying them in civilian courts will lead to actual terrorists getting free propaganda opportunities, and probably going free through insufficient evidence, or because they were mistreated in captivity. Just because the Bush administration screwed things up, doesn't mean we need to act even more stupidly and release people that are known threats.

There are apparently less than 250 of these prisoners. Obviously anyone we don't think is a serious threat should be set free, and sent anywhere that will take him. Then we have a number of prisoners who are wanted elsewhere. Those who are should be quickly deported. Objections about sending prisoners to states where they will be mistreated should be ignored. For legal reasons, if necessary, we can get some assurance from the government in question that any prisoners will be treated humanely. For example, if we are holding someone wanted in Egypt, we should transfer him there. If he faces torture and execution for prior crimes in Egypt, so be it. Problem solved. Deporting wanted prisoners would get rid of some of them and keep them out of circulation. As for the rest, the Obama administration needs to decide exactly what to do with the rest before it closes Guantanamo. Let's not repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration and proceed in a haphazard fashion without thinking things out ahead of time.


  1. For me, Gitmo was black and white. The declaration of independence outlight the inalienable rights of ALL MEN - not just American citizens. Therefore no American organisation should do things that violate that most sacred of American values - even if it is to possible terrorists.

    I agree with your conclusion - that the whole gitmo situation was a MESS from beginning to end.

  2. "outlight the inalienable rights of ALL MEN - not just American citizens"

    That's one argument, but not surprisingly I disagree. I don't believe in natural rights.

  3. It's not natural rights, just rights enshrined in the constitution of a country that calls itself the land of the free.

    At any rate, there are international laws against terrorism. If the US knows someone's a terrorist, it can prosecute in its own courts; if the trial is fair, then nobody will object to a guilty verdict.