Why Guantanamo The Place Needs to Be Closed

Jeff Weintraub wonders why Guantanamo, the physical prison, has to be closed in addition to discontinuing the slew of misguided and reputation damaging policies that have been implemented there.

I see two reasons. First, because a prison is by nature secretive – and indeed, Guantanamo was selected precisely because the Bush Administration felt it could skirt US obligations to international law – there’s no credible way to communicate a shift in policy without closing the prison itself. I suppose the US could submit Guantanamo to some sort of review by an international body, but given the US’ weighty influence in any such body, the results would likely be viewed with skepticism. Given that the goal of shifting policy is to restore confidence, leaving as little room for skepticism is the best path forward.

Finally, shuttering the prison itself has non-symbolic justification as well. Lacking a scheme for extra-legal imprisonment, the US would be forced to hold prisoners either as bona fide POWs, or else in prisons within in the US borders. In either case, the US would be signaling compliance with — and more to the point, willingness to be subject to — existing international agreements.

Waking Up to Minority Report

Matt Taibbi has an interesting post that’s a bit long to properly quote, but I’ll give it a shot with some splicing and dicing.

You can sort of see that, maybe, with the economic policies. If you were bent on clinging to the good-king fantasy, you could hold your nose and imagine that Summers/Rubin cast a spell on poor Barack. But this Gitmo thing is different. It’s not like Barack Obama doesn’t know what habeas corpus is. The guy was a freaking constitutional law professor (or “senior lecturer,” if that controversy over his academic title still rankles you). And yet Obama seems to be determined to preserve the whole concept of preventive detention, which is every bit as jarring and upsetting as the preemptive invasion concept Bush introduced. In fact this whole Gitmo episode should serve as a reminder that the upper crust of the current Democratic leadership has not, for the most part, even publicly renounced preemption.[…]

[…]Getting back to preventive detention: it’s important to remember that what’s going on at Gitmo has to be construed as a specific, public endorsement of preventive detention. For we all know that there has always been preventive detention of one sort or another in this country, ever since America became a world power: suspected spies whisked off in the middle of the night, political dissidents in foreign countries busted on trumped-up charges and quietly flown to someplace like Syria or the Phillipines for the car-battery-to-the-balls treatment. Hell, even here on American territory, we have a legal framework through FISA to quietly do all sorts of things to suspected miscreants. Where there is a will, and a loathed enough suspect, there has always been a way in America, no matter what the actual law is or has been.

Taibbi’s post (as aforementioned) is fairly long, so he addresses more things — some of which I agree with and others I don’t — but let’s work with this. I’ve written about Obama’s stance on preventative detention before, and I stand by what I argued then. That is, Obama wasn’t the one who hauled off 18 Uighurs and threw them in jail without due process or evidence. That was Bush. Now, unlike other arguments — perhaps about the economy — you really can’t say that this basic fact of causality changes as time progresses. There’s simply no getting around the fact that the Bush Administration implemented a system of open preventative detention. As such, it isn’t easy to say the continued detention these innocent people is an endorsement of preventative detention. To borrow an analogy Taibbi uses himself, calling this an endorsement of preventative detention by Obama would be akin to saying Obama supports preemptive invasion (the Bush doctrine) because he hasn’t immediately withdrawn all troops fro Iraq.

But to get back to the point of whether or not Obama’s decision is defensible sui generis, here’s the issue: the problem with preventative detention isn’t that these people are usually good characters (though in the case of the Uighurs, they seem to be), the problem is that it undermines America’s credibility. Now, these facts being what they are, Obama must decide between working to restore America’s credibility abroad — a project that’s generally going pretty well, or on the other hand, risking a serious, and in some ways legitimate, popular backlash against freeing people who will in some cases arm themselves to fight American troops. After all, public support for imprisoning detainees in SUPERMAX prisons on American soil is dreadful, what sort of anger would Obama arise by simply freeing them? It’s hard to say, but it’s not a stretch to say it could be the sort of incendiary backlash that opponents of Obama’s domestic agenda could harness to erode support for important domestic objectives.

So the final calculus then is a decision between enhancing credibility abroad or ensuring as much support as possible for sorely needed domestic reforms. It’s not a choice I envy.

Cheney: Guantanamo Funded by Monopoly Money

At this point, it’s pretty banal to call the Republican leadership intellectually bankrupt, but the audacious transparency of this zinger from Dick Cheney is really something else.

Attorney General Holder and others have admitted that the United States will be compelled to accept a number of the terrorists here, in the homeland, and it has even been suggested US taxpayer dollars will be used to support them. On this one, I find myself in complete agreement with many in the President’s own party. Unsure how to explain to their constituents why terrorists might soon be relocating into their states, these Democrats chose instead to strip funding for such a move out of the most recent war supplemental.

I mean, I understand the whole point of detaining people at Guantanamo was to obviate the need for compliance with the law, but I’m pretty sure it was never intended to obviate the need for money. Indeed, if one were to argue that extralegal detention were a dereliction of responsibilities to the American taxpayer, it would be a reasonable conclusion that the US ought to detain only those who have commited prosecutable crimes.

Guantanamo, Forward Causality, and Other Things

I’m not sure if David Brooks saw the same speech I did:

Obama has taken many of the same policies Bush ended up with, and he has made them credible to the country and the world. In his speech, Obama explained his decisions in a subtle and coherent way. He admitted that some problems are tough and allow no easy solution. He treated Americans as adults, and will have won their respect.

Do I wish he had been more gracious with and honest about the Bush administration officials whose policies he is benefiting from? Yes. But the bottom line is that Obama has taken a series of moderate and time-tested policy compromises. He has preserved and reformed them intelligently. He has fit them into a persuasive framework. By doing that, he has not made us less safe. He has made us more secure.

The remainder of Brooks’ column today can be best summarized as a bunch of hemming and hawing about how Obama’s policies are really quite similar to those in place when Bush left office coupled with justified praise for Obama’s rhetorical shift. Fair enough, but I’m pretty sure this passage from Obama’s speech addresses that head on.

The third decision that I made was to order a review of all pending cases at Guantanamo. I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch. We’re cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess — a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.

I know at some point people will tire of blaming Bush, but this is one of those instances where within the context of forward moving time, it’s really tough to build a compelling case against Obama. I mean, were it not for the Bush Administration’s system of willy-nilly extralegal detention, Obama could not possibly be confronting this problem.

On another related note, I know that as a progressive in good standing, I should be outraged that Obama isn’t working harder to break from Bush’s policies, but considering he has literally inherited a prison with a non-insignificant number of possible terrorists, I think the politics are stacked against him. That is, I’m not sure how Obama can simply let the subset of prisoners who are likely terrorists but also impossible to indict,  simply return to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Of course, I understand that the policy of lawlessness epitomized by the Bush Administration animates anti-American extremism, but the literal connection between the release of likely terrorists and the damage they may cause in their recidivism makes the political sell all but impossible. I think a little sympathy from progressives on this point is warranted.

Congress Finds Political Demagoguery on Guantanamo Compelling

This, in reference to a post on the high likelihood of Congress clearing war appropriations bills soon, is really annoying:

Democrats eliminated any money for closing the Guantanamo detainee facility, hoping to quiet Republican criticism that the plan would mean that terrorists held there would end up in the United States. Even Republicans who had joined with President Obama in calling for the closure of the prison say they do not want any action until there is a better plan for what to do with the detainees.

The United States has proven to be quite effectual when it comes to incarceration and this idea that suspected terrorists held in SUPERMAX prisons pose some sort of unique danger is really kind of absurd.  Most Americans don’t give any thought to the countless murderers, rapists, and yes, terrorists, already imprisoned on American soil, and these “concerns” are pure demagoguery. Meanwhile, as long as Guantanamo exists so that the United States can operate unfettered by the Constitution, we will continue to encourage the perception that the United States will respect international law only when convenient, which in turn encourages the likelihood of other actors balancing or arming themselves against us. That Republicans don’t even have the votes to offer succesful obstruction to something like this makes the Democratic capitulation all the more disappointing.

Simple Gifts

I’ve been privately pretty cynical about what people expect the Obama administration to accomplish; he’s not King, and by virtue of US political system, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to alacritously tackly our major problems with a little bit of hard work and gumption. Let’s not forget that the Kennedy Administration enjoyed a similarly reverntial treatment, and they entangled us in Vietnam. Anyway, while all this is true, it’s also true that immediately off the bat, there are a few good reversals of policy or momentum:

The Bush Administration prisoner, torture and rendition apparatus was effectively dismantled today with four pen strokes. President Obama convened a panel to determine how to closure the Guantanamo Bay detainee prison within a year. He ordered that all intelligence gatherers limit their interrogation techniques to the published Army Field Manual, revoking Executive Order 13440, the now infamous Bush administration gloss on the Geneva Conventions.  He directed the Justice Department to request a stay in a critical policy-determining court case. He explicitly rejects the legal advice promulgated by President Bush’s legal counsel on interrogation policy. He ordered the government to give the International Committee of the Red Cross immediate access to detainees. Renditions to countries that are known to torture prisoners will be stopped. All CIA “black” detention facilities will be closed.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but again, these are good things.

UPDATE: I think I’m going to leave this post intact as proof that a simple read over your writing often catches a lot of mistakes.


Apparently Barack Obama has plans to close Guantanamo Bay on Day One (or at least issue the order):

President-elect Barack Obama plans to issue an executive order on his first full day in office directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, people briefed by Obama transition officials said Monday.

But experts say it is likely to take many months, perhaps as long as a year, to empty the prison that has drawn international criticism since it received its first prisoners seven years ago this week. One transition official said the new administration expected that it would take several months to transfer some of the remaining 248 prisoners to other countries, decide how to try suspects and deal with the many other legal challenges posed by closing the camp.

As I’ve mentioned before, the biggest issue with Guantanamo was not that it broke international law, it’s that it was a public symbol of the abandonment of the freedoms for which the U.S. putatively stood. That is, it’s a pretty banal observation that the U.S. government has engaged in some pretty shady activity in the past, but the difference was that it didn’t flaunt the behavior, nor did was it done on such a large scale. This is actually an important distinction insofar as the international community is concerned, and it’s a step in the right direction that Obama plans to shut it down. Step two will be shutting down Guantanamo in Afghanistan and dismantling the military commissions.