Time to revisit Guantanamo. Recently, 700 documents were released to Wikileaks providing “detainee assessments” of remaining and already released residents of the U.S. facility at Guantanamo. Very early in his term, President Obama issued multiple executive orders in January of 2009 ordering the closing Guantanamo Bay’s prison for enemy combatants within one year and a comprehensive review of detainee treatment policy. Now, over two years later Guantanamo remains open for business and active as ever as the facility prepares for military commissions to try one of the biggest names in terrorism, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who planned the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, President Obama recently signed another executive order in March which would establish a system permitting the indefinite detaining of prisoners deemed too dangerous to be released but for whom there is not enough evidence to try them even by shabby military commission standards.
But Mohammed’s story only begins to tell the deeper one of congressional blowback and political quagmires the President faced in trying to fulfill his inaugural promise. President Obama previously helmed the slow walk towards establishing a more fair treatment system for detainees following a number of groundbreaking Supreme Court cases (see http://projects.washingtonpost.com/guantanamo/timeline/ for an excellent timeline and briefing of the situation in Guantanamo), including attempting to try prisoners in federal courts. But as political wheels grinded, the issue has ended up not moving forward at all compared to two years ago. The Obama Administration pledged to try detainees in domestic courts according to the rule of law, but congressmen ever attached to their constituencies have fought it like the plague. Take Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican from Northern Virginia. When he discovered that the administration planned to deliver some of the 17 Chinese Uighurs to his district as part of the plan to decommission the Gitmo prison facility, he scolded the White House officials for the secrecy and refused to accept them because of concerns about their threat to America. The administration had already classified them as definite non-threats to American security interests.
The debacle followed with Congress pulling funding for any plan to close Guantanamo Bay and consequently try detainees in federal courts because of similar widespread concerns about the threat to constituencies. The one case that was tried in federal court, Ahmed Ghailani, almost ended in his complete acquittal because the threshold of evidence necessary to convict in federal courts is so high. Out of 285 charges, he was only found guilty of one.
It’s not all the president’s fault, or even the fault of bureaucratic grind. The American people are averse to the potential (but in reality abstract) threat of bringing detainees onto our soil. Certainly, there are problems with detainee threat assessment. One detainee released a few years ago was recently found fighting for the Libyan rebels against the Qaddafi regime. But the largest problem is the impact of a still-open, and information-leaking, Guantanamo prison facility. The release of detainee profiles is only aggravated by the death of Osama bin Laden. This is the fuel for the radical Islamic fire. With the release of critical documents that illuminate a legacy of prisoner maltreatment and even more importantly vast gaps in the full story of Guantanamo Bay, we are advertising the greatest flaws of America. These stories are our anti-COIN because they provide means for terrorist recruiters to win over the hearts and minds of young Arabs or at least proliferate an image of American brutality that will make diplomacy in the Middle East less friendly.
The President should commission a report that provides causality to these claims. The American people at large need to know that the threat to national security by keeping the facility open is severe. Representatives and Senators more specifically need to have the issue framed for them in a way that persuades a change of opinion on the continuation of Guantanamo. Only then can the executive order establishing a system for indefinite detention of prisoners with insufficient evidence to convict in even a military court, be overturned with positive consequences for America.