(Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun Sentinel: Close Guantanamo Bay Detention Center

By (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun Sentinel

FEB. 25, 2016 — From almost every perspective, it makes sense for the United States to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday sent Congress a plan to shut down the facility, which President George W. Bush established on the southeast shore of Cuba after 9/11. Reaction from Republicans — especially those running for president — was predictably hysterical, but a sober review shows why Congress should consider, modify and then approve the closing.

Only 91 prisoners remain at Guantanamo. The high was nearly 800. The government transferred most of those detainees to foreign countries, with no demonstrable damage to national security. As Obama noted Tuesday, Bush approved about 500 such transfers. The detainee count was 241 when Obama took office, having pledged to close the center.

No transfer occurs unless the Guantanamo Review Task Force approves it. The task force includes representatives of the departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last month, for example, 10 Yemenis believed to have low-level ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban were sent to Oman.

Of those 91 remaining detainees, 35 are eligible for transfer. Ten are in the military tribunal process that the Bush administration set up to prosecute Guantanamo detainees. Forty-six cannot be transferred and would have to come to the United States. The Obama administration has identified high-security federal facilities in Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina that might house them.

There has been much rhetoric about the potential risk of bringing Guantanamo detainees here, but no evidence. Indeed, most of those who carried out the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center are at that Colorado facility. So is Zaccarias Moussaoui, whom the government suspects was the 20th hijacker on 9/11. So is Richard Reed, who tried to bring down a jetliner with a shoe bomb.

Actually, punishment for the worst of those Gitmo detainees would have been swifter if the Bush administration never had sent them to Cuba. Twenty-three years after he helped to orchestrate the 1993 World Trade Center attack and 15 years after he allegedly planned the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed has not been convicted.

Why? Blame the dysfunctional military tribunal system. Bush approved it supposedly to make prosecution of terrorism suspects more efficient — and certainly more secret. Instead, the tribunals have been an expensive debacle.

As of last summer, the tribunals had resulted in just eight convictions. And in June 2015, the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., struck down a terrorism conspiracy conviction with a ruling that legal analysts believe could jeopardize seven similar convictions. The problem from the start has been that constitutional law favors military courts only for war crimes or to prosecute U.S. soldiers. Conspiracy charges don’t rise to war-crimes level.

The legal argument for Guantanamo’s tribunals has been unraveling for at least a decade. In 2006, ruling in a case involving Osama bin Laden’s driver, the Supreme Court concluded that the tribunals violated the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The conventions, the court said, prohibit “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”

Meanwhile, civilian courts have produced about 500 terrorism-related convictions since 9/11. Of those defendants, 67 were brought from abroad. So much for the claim that granting American rights to non-Americans would hinder prosecution.

Now, let’s talk money. The detention center, which has about 2,000 employees, cost $450 million to operate last year. The cost works out to $5 million-plus per detainee — about 100 times what it costs to house an inmate in the federal prison system. Keeping it open indefinitely could require $200 million worth of improvements. The Obama administration estimates the savings from closing Guantanamo would be $1.7 billion over 20 years.

Obama’s weakest argument is terrorist groups use Guantanamo Bay to recruit followers. Multiple news reports have shown the Islamic State and others may include the center in their propaganda but don’t highlight it. Obama also must address a legitimate question that Congress raised: If Guantanamo Bay closes, how will the government prosecute those captured abroad who cannot be tried in civilian courts?

Myths about Guantanamo Bay persist. Donald Trump recently howled that the five detainees released in the Bo Bergdahl prisoner swap are “back on the battlefield.” No, they’re in Qatar, monitored by the government.

From a legal, security and fiscal perspective, the United States would win by closing the Guantanamo detention center. The only perspective that matters for some, however, is the political perspective. And that shouldn’t matter at all.

By (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Sun Sentinel

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