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Homeland Security

Experts Weigh In on Challenges of Closing Guantanamo Prison

by Cecily Hilleary May 22, 2013

The Obama administration is asking Congress for more than $450 million to maintain and upgrade the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison even as the president is searching for ways to close the 11-year-old facility on a U.S. Navy base in Cuba.

Barack Obama first promised to shut down the Guantanamo detention center when he was running for the presidency in 2008. He and other administration officials have blamed members of Congress for preventing him from carrying through with the closure.

The Guantanamo detention facility was set up by the then-President George W. Bush in 2002 to house terrorist suspects following the al-Qaida terror attacks that killed about 3,000 people in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

Since its opening, about 780 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban suspects have been held at Guantanamo. More than 600 of them have been released or transferred to other countries over the years, many without ever having been formally charged with crimes. The facility currently houses 166 terror suspects.

"Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," President Obama declared again last month. "It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

The president is expected to talk about Guantanamo's future again on Thursday during a speech on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Last week, a former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo delivered a petition to the White House containing more than 370,000 signatures and demanding that the Cuba facility be closed down immediately. The former prosecutor, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis, said the prison was a blot on America record.

​​"Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn't commit a crime, we don't intend to charge them, they don't pose an imminent threat and we don't want to keep them," Davis said in an interview. "Yet still they sit there, year after year after year."

Adding to the pressures on Mr. Obama is a hunger strike by many Guantanamo prisoners that has been going on for more than three months. Many of them are being forced fed to keep them alive.

So why hasn't the president moved to close down the facility over the past four-and-a-half years? Some of his harshest critics have accused him of being less than totally honest on the issue. His defenders have blamed Republicans in Congress, or noted that closing Guantanamo is easier said than done.

Davis, who served as chief prosecutor at Guantanamo from 2005 to 2007, noted that 56 of the current detainees are from Yemen and were slated to be returned home years ago. He said the transfer was blocked after the so-called "underwear bomber" tried to blow up a plane over Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day, 2009.

"When it turned out that the plot for the underwear bombing was hatched in Yemen, so we shut off the pipeline back," said Davis, now a professor at Howard University law school in Washington D.C.

Closing Guantanamo

Davis says some members of Congress have made closing Guantanamo "difficult," but not impossible. He says the Yemenis should be sent home immediately and the remaining prisoners divided between those who should be prosecuted before the military commission or in federal courts and those who should be sent home.

"The National Defense Authorization Act has a provision where the Secretary of Defense has the authority to certify, on a case-by-case basis, detainees, basically vouching that they are not a threat to the U.S. and they're not going to do any harm and it's safe to send them home," he said.

But Davis says the White House has not done this because it fears a released prisoner might take up arms against the U.S. later.

"If you sent the 86 cleared detainees home, somebody in that group is going to do something stupid at some point in the future, and the president hasn't been willing to have his name on that happening," he said.

​​The New America Foundation recently released a study of former Guantanamo detainees to determine how many have taken up arms since their release. The study found that about 8.5% returned to "the battlefield."

Davis says that's not enough to keep them imprisoned forever without charges. "The alternative is to me fundamentally un-American, and that's to say we're willing to keep 166 people locked up for the rest of their lives on the chance that eight and a half percent of them would do something stupid," Davis said.

Davis points out that it costs $800,000 to $900,000 per man, per year, to keep detainees at Guantanamo, while housing them in U.S. supermax ["super maximum security"] prisons would cost about $32,000 per man, per year.

Guantanamo alternatives?

​​Alberto R. Gonzales, a former U.S. Attorney General in the Bush administration, says there are good reasons that Guantanamo hasn't been closed.

"The problem the U.S. has, of course, is that there's no viable alternative at this moment, and because the need continues to detain captured enemy combatants somewhere, we need to continue to have Guantanamo open."

And Gonzales opposes transferring detainees to U.S. prisons.

"I think that we have the capability to provide for the safety of these individuals and to provide for the safety of the surrounding communities," Gonzales said. "But the truth of the matter is that if you move them to one facility like supermax, the supermax will become the next symbol of American oppression -- because I think the enemy has shown that it will use anything that we do as a recruiting tool."

And Gonzales also is against trying the detainees on terrorism charges in the United States.

"Once you bring them into the United States, they very well may have additional constitutional plans against this country, and there's a possibility these terrorists will put the U.S. on trial in connection with any kind of subsequent criminal proceedings."

Moral, legal issues

Gonzales also disagrees with Obama's claim that Guantanamo hurts U.S. international standing and harms U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

"One reason that people might have concern about Guantanamo – or simply a knee-jerk reaction—is because they simply don't agree with the notion that a country should be able to detain people that it captures indefinitely without charges," he said. "Of course that ignores a long-standing tradition, long-standing tenet of international law, that under the laws of war, countries who capture people fighting against them can detain them indefinitely for the duration of hostilities."

He also believes that negative impressions of Guantanamo are based on old perceptions.

"The facilities are as good, if not better than some of the facilities in the United States…," he said.

"President Bush made the calculation—when the war on terror began—that our number one priority would be to prevent another attack, prevent another loss of lives, and that secondary to that would be bringing people to justice," Gonzales continued. "And he understood that because of some of the measures that we took, which were successful in protecting American lives, would present additional challenges for prosecutors in terms of bringing them to justice at a later date."

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