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June 12, 2005

Weekly Top 10 - 10 Reasons to Close Guantanamo
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Amnesty International's gulag remark was hyperbole and may have just made it tougher to get the Administration to own up to a prison gone wrong.  And – while the Administration pretends it is otherwise - no one is suggesting that the Guantanamo inmates simply be set free - - many and probably most may need to be detained for years to come, though this could be done in prisons in their home countries and the U.S.  People also aren't suggestion Gitmo be shut overnight.  While it will take some time to work out what to do with the 540 inmates, declaring a shut-down date that is months away would make that work go faster.   There are good reasons to close down the Guantanamo detention camp, and here are 10:                                                                                                                                                                        

1.         Because conditions there have given rise to torture – For reasons that will be debated for years to come, multiple incidents of torture have occurred at Guantanamo.  The revelations of abuse continue to spill out, including this latest from Time Magazine.  The U.S. rejects torture unequivocally (as does President Bush ), and cannot maintain a facility where we know torture occurs.

2.         To eliminate what has become a liability in the war on terror – Reports of ill-treatment of Afghan detainees at Guantanamo have become a rallying cry for anti-U.S. insurgents across the Muslim world.  Getting rid of Guantanamo won't solve the problem, but – particularly if coupled with serious efforts to prevent all abuses in detention and interrogation - it will deprive them of what has become a highly evocative symbol around the world. (see Biden's comments - -  Rep. Mel Martinez (R-FL) agrees). 

3.         To recapture the U.S.'s position as a human rights standard-bearer – Despite the Administration's denunciations, Amnesty's fingering of the U.S. as a major human rights violator has been heard 'round the world.  The claim resonates because of the revelations concerning Guantanamo, Bagram and elsewhere.  To counter this, we need to make a dramatic gesture to show that the U.S. maintains its reputation on the forefront of promoting human rights. (see Jimmy Carter's comments).

4.        To expedite the determination of which inmates warrant continued detention – One of the most egregious aspects of the Guantanamo process is the fact that after being captive for three and a half years, many of the 540 detainees have still not had the benefit of a hearing to determine whether there is evidence to back their designation as enemy combatants.   Some still haven't even seen a lawyer.  With a fixed timeline to shut down Guantanamo, those hearings would need to happen more quickly. 

5.        Because legal advantages to offshore detention are dwindling – The original reason to use Gitmo for Afghan detainees was to stop them from asserting their rights in U.S. courts by asserting a loophole based on the fact that the prison isn't on American soil.   But the Supreme Court has held that the writ of habeas corpus does apply at Gitmo, and the Administration has been dealt a series of similar setbacks in lower courts.  So any legal advantage the Administration hoped to gain by offshoring detentions is dwindling. 

6.         To facilitate providing mandated legal protections – Now that the Administration has been required to afford broader due process rights to the Guantanamo population that continues to be held, this will be far easier to accomplish if the detainees are held in the U.S. where they can readily meet with their lawyers and appear in court as neededThere are also indications that greater openness and accessibility may result in improved conditions even when lawyers aren't around.   

7.         To make other countries take responsibility for their own nationals – For at least some governments (see, for example, this article from Australia reprinted on Watching America ), Guantanamo has offered a convenient alternative to having to hold and try prisoners back home.   If the U.S. were to close Guantanamo, these countries would have to take responsibility for their own people.  The Administration has acknowledged this benefit.

8.         To enable better oversight and monitoring – The way to ensure that treatment of prisoners at detention facilities are treated humanely and in a way the U.S. can be proud of is through carefully designed policies, strict implementation by responsible military authorities, and rigorous internal and external monitoring.    All this is easier to achieve on U.S. soil:  more senior military officers can be directly involved and objective monitors, including civilians, can play a bigger role.

9.         Because military prisons elsewhere in the U.S. can handle those inmates that are not repatriated – One of the reasons originally given for housing the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo was that this was a particularly violent and rebellion-prone group , as evidenced by the ferociousness of the Taliban's fighting during the war.  But there's little sign that as an inmate population, the Guantanamo detainees pose any particular challenge with which a mainline military prison could not cope.  Other enemy combatants like Jose Padilla have been held on U.S. soil without incident.

10.      Because bi-partisan support for this solution is building – The groundswell is beginning.  This is one of the few areas where we stand a chance of building a bi-partisan coalition to take a stand on behalf of human rights, American values, and our place in the world.    Making it happen may point toward the potential for such an alliance to fight and win further battles on behalf of the goals and values we care about.


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That makes no sense.

1. If conditions have given rise to torture (or, more likely, abuse; I've yet to see any serious allegations of torture, unless you define torture down so far as to make it meaningless), then isn't the problem to fix the conditions? Should we shut down every facility where something bad occurs? If so, there'll be no prison anywhere in the US where we can hold any prisoner, because bad stuff happens at all prisons. Can we make it better? Perhaps. Can we fix the problem by closing this one facility? No; that would just move the problem elsewhere.

2. OK, we get rid of Guantanamo. Then, we'll have to get rid of Abu Ghraib, of course, under the same logic. Then, because this will be an unambiguous victory for our enemy, they will begin alleging a pattern of abuse at every US detention facility, and will claim that in shutting down Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib we've already admitted the abuse. Setting up new prisons and camps would cost millions, and the number of suitable locations is small. So we've gained what exactly? And at quite high cost.

3. We make a dramatic gesture. Then AI and others claim vindication. Then they move onto the next facility to target. There is no moral high ground regained, to the extent it has been lost.

4. This is a war, not a courtroom trial. We captured people on the battlefield, fighting out of uniform and committing other war crimes major and minor. We are within our rights to shoot them on the spot, after the most basic of preliminaries (effectively, three officers agreeing by at least two-to-one). The prisoners have all had military hearings; none of them (I think, maybe one or two) has had anything else, and none are entitled to anything else. The exception, in my mind, is that US citizens should be brought to the US and tried for treason; for noncitizens, they're lucky we didn't summarily execute them.

5. I'm not sure if those court decisions applied to all detainees, or only American citizens. But I certainly don't want them to bring the prisoners to the US. Can you imagine the problems if there were an escape? Further, if they were put into normal prisons, there would be a chance for them to convert the inmates, which is a tactic called for specifically in al Qaeda's training for their recruits. (As is, by the way, making allegations of torture and lurid behavior.)

6. Given that this is not criminal activity, but warfare, I would consider your point to be a reason to keep them from the US. Actually, if I were the Attorney General, I would pointedly ignore the Supreme Court on this issue, outside of protections to be granted to American citizens, on the basis of separation of powers doctrine.

7. And if these people come from countries that actively support the terror war against the US? And how do you propose to deal with the charges of complicity with torture that come with extraordinary rendition?

8. The ICRC is involved at all US facilities, and Guantanamo already has about as high a profile as is possible. I can't see how the monitoring could be improved, while still maintaining any pretense at keeping the enemy from knowing who we have and what we've learned from them.

9. I don't think that we outside of the facility have any indication either way on the violence of the inmate population. What anecdotal evidence I have seen indicates that indeed keeping these guys in a special facility is a very good idea. But there's so little evidence in either direction that arguing in either direction is really just stating preference as argument.

10. Bi-partisan support for covering their asses is always readily available in Congress. That doesn't necessarily translate into good policy.

The whole debate is so meaningless. There needs to be a serious discussion of how to handle terrorists in counter-insurgency warfare. The Geneva Accords are, quite simply, not built to handle warfare where one side is not a state or a similarly organized political group. If there were a serious attempt to address what needed to be done to fight terrorism, and what was out of bounds, I could get behind that.

For example, there needs to be international consensus on when and how suspected terrorists can be detained, and on when they need to be released, and on what kind of access they will have to the legal system. There needs to be international consensus on what activities are out of bounds and what activities are not. How do you deal with a situation where the guy lying wounded in the street is either an innocent bystander who was hit in the crossfire, or an enemy fighter who will blow himself up when the medics approach? How do you protect troops when the kill the man, deciding the latter, and it turns out that he was innocent? Or do you simply assume that the troops have no right to defend themselves, in which case you've given up on ever winning a war.

There cannot be any kind of agreement on such issues when everyone is out trying to score political points. And that's all most of the criticism of Guantanamo, including this post, amounts to.

Good post, Suzanne. My only concern is that this will turn into a limited hang-out. We'll remove the symbol but the problem will remain.

The guy formerly in charge of Gitmo -- an artillery officer for God's sake! -- is now in charge of Abu Ghraib prison (which, by the way, Bush promised to tear down until the PR storm blew over). It's clear Bush approves of these methods, and focusing this debate narrowly on Gitmo enables him to pretend to solve the problem when in reality little will have been done.

In any case, there's no excuse for Gitmo even on a simple cost/benefit analysis. From Vanity Fair:

"Worst of all from a military standpoint, intelligence officials with extensive experience in counterterrorism claim that Gitmo's intelligence value is relatively low, and much of the information obtained there unreliable. Vanity Fair has established that none of the al-Qaeda leaders captured since September 11, 2001, has ever been held at Guantanamo Bay....

"The method of interrogation now in use at Gitmo -- a formal system of escalating bribes in return for confessions -- is almost certain to produce bogus testimony, experts say, and the camp's interrogators are mostly young and inexperienced."

Gitmo is just a symbol. Symbols matter, but it's only a symbol.

Should the United States engage in torture or "willful abuse" or whatever euphamism you want to use?

If your answer is "no", then you should be working toward a system that prevents abuse of prisoners.

There should be transparency and oversight be independent entities. But this should be true for all people incarcerated.

Jeff, do you oppose abusing prisoners?

Define "abusing". There is too much dependent on definitions for me to answer that question definitively without such a definition.

By my standards of what constitutes abuse, yes, I oppose abusing prisoners. I do not oppose aggressively interrogating prisoners, in particular using cultural taboos and physical and psychological discomfiture. Heck, what Time breathlessly describes (,8599,1071230,00.html) would be laughed out of a case against local law enforcement, never mind trying to get information out of illegal enemy combatants.

We're not making these guys go naked in cold water, putting them in solitary on bread and water, covering them in rotten meat, etc. (No abuse as a matter of policy, in other words.) We're not beating these guys, breaking their bones, pulling out their fingernails, drugging them, etc. (No torture, in other words.) Much less beheading them while ululating. And in the few cases where abuse has been actually occurring (Abu Ghraib), we've tried and punished the idiots doing it.

Now, how does my attitude about this have anything to do with the simple fact that closing down Guantanamo will not solve any problems, even if torture and abuse were happening there as a matter of policy?

Get some perspective. Before saying another word about Gitmo, read this:

"Somewhere in Cuba, there are prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, sitting in their excrement infested 3 foot by 6 foot completely enclosed cells rotting away for maybe owning a typewriter or for writing a poem or, far worse, for expressing their opinions."

I agree that closing down Gitmo is a symbolic act.

I favor compliance with all domestic and international law on the treatment of prisoners. The Bush administration clearly does not.

Prisons, domestic and otherwise, should be available for inspection by independent organizations and the results of these inspections should be public.

If we're not breaking the rules, what's there to hide?

Okay, Carl. Would you mind if I stopped by to inspect your place? I'm an independent organization, and will be happy to make the results of my inspection public.

You're not breaking the rules, so you don't have anything to hide, right?


The Geneva Convention on Warfare defines lawful & unlawful combatants. The detainees at Gitmo are accurately defined as unlawful combatants. They are not "prisoners of war" and it would be contrary to the Geneva Conventions to define them as such. By the general conventions of war, as practiced by Western nations for centuries, such detainees could legally be executed. Yet, the US has decided to treat them humanely, and to house them & feed them better than they were getting while fighting in Asia. These unlawful combatants were not observing the Geneva conventions on war when they were captured in Afghanistan or Pakistan. By the way, of the over 200 detainees who were released after promising to stop fighting, 6 have been re-captured in Afghansitan where they returned and resumed fighting.

What exactly is this "International Law" you speak of? What authority does it have over sovereign states? Does International Law ban the mishandling of Qurans (thoughtfully provided by the US in the first place)? If so, does International Law also ban the confiscation & destruction of Bibles by Saudi customs officials? No? Does this International Law ban the bombing of mosques, churches & synagogues by al-Qaeda? Does it ban the torture & beheading of Western journalists?

Are you "in favor of compliance with all domestic and international law on the treatment of prisoners" on the part of al Qaeda combatants or just by the US?

When a group such as al Qaeda declares for itself allegance to a violent and extreme "universal law", who can the people of the world call upon for protection from these ruthless killers? The UN? The International Court? The New York Times? The ACLU? Amnesty International? The correct answer is none of the above.

Carl, you do realize, I hope, that the ICRC is constantly on site at Guantanamo? And that there are journalists in Guantanamo every week? We're not exactly hiding what we're doing there. And what we're doing there goes beyond our obligations under international law. We are granting the protections of the Geneva Accords (and then some) to those whom the Geneva Accords allow us to simply execute with impunity because of their actions.

Oh, and Kenneth, International Law is actually, as I am sure that you know, a set of treaties. We are bound by those treaties to the extent that we've ratified them (including all but, I think, one of the Geneva Accords). We are not bound by those (ICC, Kyoto) that we have not ratified.

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