One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order mandating that the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba be closed. Obama insisted that the Guantanamo Bay facility — Gitmo — was an important recruiting tool for terrorists.
When Obama left office, Gitmo was still open, housing about forty-one terrorists including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al-Qaeda planner of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003 and still hasn’t been brought to trial. Some of the other 9/11 plotters and planners, including Ramzi Binalshib, are also still in Gitmo and have been there for more than a decade.
The “Gitmo Bar Association” — lawyers, many from prominent firms providing free legal services to inmates — has gone to the Supreme Court repeatedly. Their efforts have resulted in decisions bestowing the right of habeas corpus to the terrorists in Gitmo. Moreover, in a nonsensical act, the Bush 43 administration declared that they were covered by Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions, essentially giving enemy combatants the same rights as POWs.
Before he was inaugurated, President Trump promised to “load up” Gitmo with “bad dudes” from al-Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and other terrorist networks. On July 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein visited Gitmo. The Trump administration is reportedly planning to fill Gitmo with newly captured terrorists.
The question is whether refilling Gitmo benefits us more than the enemy.
President George W. Bush, in his memoir, Decision Points, wrote that “While I believe opening Guantanamo after 9/11 was necessary, the detention facility has become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies. I worked to find a way to close the prison without compromising national security.”
As Bush wrote, the number of detainees at Gitmo had dropped from a high of 800 to about 250 when he left office. He hoped many of them would still be tried but, “Some of the hardened, dangerous terrorists at Guantanamo may be difficult to try. I knew that if I released them and they killed Americans, the blood would be on my hands.”
He found there wasn’t a way to close Gitmo without compromising our national security. There still isn’t one.
About 110 Gitmo inmates released under Bush are confirmed as having returned to the battlefield. About 120 released by Obama are similarly confirmed as having returned to warring against us.
We don’t — and shouldn’t — know the value of intelligence extracted from Gitmo inmates. But we do know that it was, from the time the prison opened until about five years ago when the intelligence value of long-held detainees diminished, an enormous amount.
Courtesy of the Defense Department, I visited Gitmo in July 2005. I was one of a group of military analysts who write and appear on radio and television to talk about what was then called the “global war against terrorism” by President George W. Bush.
We saw everything. The interrogation rooms where terrorist detainees were milked of intelligence information. The cell blocks — ranging from the minimum security wing where detainees read, played soccer, and exercised to stay in shape — to the maximum security block where they were held in small cells under constant watch. The medical clinics where they were healed, given prostheses to replace limbs lost in battle and the dental clinic where the dentists told us that most of the detainees received the first dental care in their lives. And we talked to the guards, most of whom had suffered being drenched in “the cocktail” — a toxic mix of feces and urine — thrown at them by inmates.
We were briefed by the then-commander of Joint Task Force Gitmo, Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood. He told us that the detainees were very aware of the media attention given Gitmo. That caused, he said, most of the detainees to believe Gitmo would soon be closed. As a result, many refused to divulge any useful information.
Questioning was done by highly trained military intelligence officers and civilians as well as by the FBI and the intelligence agencies.
Detainees were kept in individual cells. They were given copies of the Koran, which they kept suspended above the floor in surgical masks. Interrogation sessions were interrupted at the times of Muslim prayer, and arrows were painted on floors all over the camp pointing toward Mecca.
After they are imprisoned at Gitmo for many months, a large portion of the detainees cooperated. Some were bribed with chocolate bars and Cokes. Others decided to cooperate with specific intelligence officers and not others. One of these officers, called “mom” by the detainees, was fluent in several of their languages and was able to successfully gather highly valuable intelligence in days, weeks, and months of questioning. Information gained by “mom” and others was actionable in capturing other terrorists and interdicting a large number of terrorist attacks.
By the time I went to Gitmo twelve years ago, allegations of abuse of prisoners were long past. It is probably the most-inspected prison in the world. Many groups, such as the International Red Cross, conduct frequent inspections to assure humane treatment of the inmates.
An Associated Press report last week quoted two former Tunisian Gitmo inmates to the effect that their homeland was a prison that they wanted to escape even if they had to return to Gitmo.
President Bush’s statement that Gitmo was a terrorist propaganda tool was validated many times. One study, by a group called “Human Rights First,” found that Gitmo was mentioned frequently by terrorist group propaganda that lumped it in with the Abu Ghraib prison where abuses did occur. That study didn’t purport to connect propaganda with recruitment.
Another study by the “Lawfare Blog” concluded that Gitmo wasn’t a significant recruiting tool for terrorists. The rise of ISIS also proves that point. ISIS grew quickly from a small to an international terrorist threat. It did so in the same manner that other terrorist networks, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban, grew in the years before Gitmo was opened on the basis of the Islamist ideology and our presence in Muslim lands. Gitmo, as the Lawfare blog concluded, isn’t a significant motivation for people to join terrorist groups.
Even before Mr. Bush’s book was published, the left jumped to the conclusion that successful terrorist recruitment would diminish if Gitmo were closed. Mr. Obama turned that into a political crusade to close Gitmo and move its inmates to U.S. prisons where they could be tried in civilian courts. Congress repeatedly blocked his plan on the grounds that the transfer to U.S. prisons would endanger the communities in which the jails were located by making them more susceptible to attacks by other terrorists trying to release them.
That danger is not present at Gitmo, which is not only heavily guarded but could only be attacked by a large force attempting to enter by sea or over the Marine garrison at the Guantanamo Bay naval station. It is, to say the least, not an attractive target.
What Mr. Obama, the media, and the rest of the left refused to recognize is that no matter where terrorists are held, the left will continue its campaign to have them released. The terrorist networks would condemn, and use for propaganda, any prison regardless of its location. Keeping them confined at Gitmo is safer and no more susceptible to terrorist propaganda and recruitment drive than any other prison.
With the advent of ISIS — after Obama’s Iraq withdrawal and contemporaneous with his drawdown in Afghanistan — recruitment spread to European nations and the U.S. Now ISIS, vastly more than al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks, is able to reach into Western societies to recruit and those recruits, holding passports from their native nations such as France, Germany, Britain, and the U.S., can easily return to those nations to conduct future attacks.
By refusing to send captured terrorists to Gitmo, Mr. Obama reduced our forces’ options. Obama’s “no-Gitmo” policy probably resulted in some captured terrorists being released into the custody of nations who have turned them loose. It is preferable to kill them rather than not having a place like Gitmo to keep them indefinitely.
When Mr. Obama released five top Taliban commanders in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, he ensured that the Taliban would be able to regain the offensive. They are now fighting hard to retake Afghanistan.
Gitmo also offers a better solution to the need for interrogation of terrorist prisoners than any of the plans offered by the left. It offers long-term confinement and — with no plans to close it — robs the terrorist inmates of one of their most important reasons for not cooperating: the prospect of quick release.
Keeping Gitmo open and sending captured terrorists to it complies with the law of war. A belligerent — us — is entitled to keep prisoners of war confined until the war is over. Even if that means we detain and question the terrorists for the remainder of their lives, we have a right to do so. Gitmo has proved that the prospect of long-term confinement, and the reality of it, are two of the keys to gathering valuable intelligence information.
Mr. Trump should live up to his campaign promise and begin sending captured terrorists to Gitmo. Every terrorist confined there is one less we have to worry about.