Montana Politics

From Gitmo to where?


Of all the many disappointments President Obama has inflicted on progressives in this country, one of the most visible is the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay. That dismay was heightened for many when he authorized the resumption of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay (this was apparently quite a relief for Republicans).

I understand this disappointment, and everything I’ve read indicates to me that Guantanamo is not an ideal situation. But one of the big problems in my opinion is that those opposed to Guantanamo generally leave it at that – they are opposed to Guantanamo. Rarely is a specific alternative put forth. This leaves fear mongers on the right plenty of room to bring the public to a near panic at the thought of doing anything differently. I was hoping to hear some ideas about what could be done instead.

It seems to me that the biggest problem is that these detainees have to go somewhere, and just because they can’t be convicted in the US doesn’t mean that they won’t be arrested and conceivably tortured or otherwise ill-treated in their home countries. This is a grave dilemma, especially for a group of people like the Uighurs. repatriating them would be illegal and immoral – putting them right into the hands of Chinese authorities known to mistreat Uighur separatists. Then there is the issue of where else to put them – no other country particularly wants to accept them either. Efforts to get countries to accept them tend to invoke a very strong NIMBY response (though Bermuda and Palau both deserve a tip of the hat for their efforts at helping us resolve this problem).

Lastly, there is the real problem that some released prisoners have been known to later re-involve themselves in terrorism.

We can’t solve the problem of Guantanamo until we answer these very real questions – what to do with prisoners who can’t be convicted in US courts, but at the same time can’t, either for their safety or ours, be released anywhere else.

About the author

The Polish Wolf


  • Bullshit.

    Some of the Uighurs should have been brought into the United States: Judge Urbina was poised to impose conditions on their release, there is a Uighur community in DC that was set to welcome them (and a Tallahassee church willing to sponsor a couple more) and so it didn't have to be just Switzerland, Albania, Palau, and Bermuda. (One of the guys who went to Albania has ended up in Sweden — one more country braver than the land of the free).

    Had the US stepped up to take just a few men, resettlements of those few who need to be resettled — maybe a dozen more? — would have gone much easier.

    Over half the prisoners are from Yemen. Few if any played any significant role in Afghanistan, and release of those men does not add to any risk. That is, there are enough cannon fodder types in Yemen and elsewhere — adding a few guys to their number is not consequential, even if some guy ends up doing something. (More than half of the Yemenis have already been cleared, and this is under the some-granny-might-bring-down-an-airliner-with-a-tube-of-toothpaste overreaction standard. An intelligent review would send over 90% of them home, easy).

    So we end up with a much smaller group — the 9/11 plotters, and some senior guys with special skills. And you can put them on trial.

    I don't mean to pick on you PW, but when people say that there are specific men who can't be either charged or released, I ask who exactly you mean: what are their names, and what have they done. Even under Obama, DOD was willing to include Fouad al Rabia on that list. A superpower than feels the need to keep him locked up, on the evidence they had, isn't much of a superpower. I'm sure that Musa'ab Al-Madhwani is currently on the list: people who read Judge Hogan's decision in his case might find that unfortunate.

  • I agree with you once and disagree twice, Charley. I do agree that the US ought to have allowed the Uighers to live here. Indeed, I think that should be US policy for any Chinese dissident, whether we ruined the last decade of their lives or not. And I've written before (loooong ago) about the scandal that is the very few Iraqi refugees the US is accepting. Sadly I don't think America agrees with us.

    As far as prisoners being merely 'cannon fodder' and thus it not mattering if we release them…symbolically, it's a huge blow. Try to convince Americans that it's not a big deal if we release a prisoner who goes on to kill a dozen Iraqi police, because if it weren't him it'd be someone else. Moreover, it is a much greater blow if we put someone on trial, present the evidence against them, and then let them go, because at that point they know a great deal more about our intelligence accuracy than we would prefer. Not that that's likely, which brings me to my next point – how do you try anyone remotely connected with al Qaeda in the regular justice system and expect them to get a fair trial? They certainly can't have a jury trial, and as soon as any of them are found not guilty by a civilian court, Obama (not to mention the judge involved) is going to take a hit politically from those who think that a beard and a turban is enough evidence to convict. I'm not saying that excuses the lack of action, but it explains it.

    And the bigger issue is that it's not all that easy to simply release them back to their home country. You note the large number of Yemenis involved. It's quite possible for someone to be a trained insurgent but be impossible to convict in the US. Even if there aren't really enough of them to make a real difference, it can really only go one of two ways. Either they go free and run off to join de-stabilizing elements in Yemen (as some have), or (more likely) they are arrested in Yemen, imprisoned, and quite possibly tortured. The former is generally not considered good foreign policy etiquette, the latter is straight up illegal (not that legality has been the guiding force behind our Gitmo policy, but still…). We don't want to say this publicly too much because Yemen is still our ally, but that doesn't make it less true.

  • It's not hard to release Yemenis back to Yemen. It just isn't. These men aren't 'trained insurgents' by and large, the assistant cook (Bihani) and medic (Warafie) are much more typical. What will they do when they get back? It obviously depends on the person, but one should not ignore the broader context. That Kuwaiti fellow should never have been released without some firm arrangements for mental health care — and everybody knew it (especially DOD who released him, I'm quite sure, not because they had faith in his future behavior, but because they were tired of having him in their jail.) It would be better if we really helped set these guys up in their new lives, but politically that's just impossible. So, what, we have to keep them in jail because we'd rather spend the money doing that than spend half the money helping them get on with their lives.

    Conditions at the prison have improved dramatically over the past 3 years: you'd almost think someone is acting like maybe most of these guys are actually going to be out some day, and what kind of situation do we want for them. (The end of the interrogation mission is a big deal here: replacing isolation and hopelessness — supposedly optimal conditions for interrogation — with calls home to family and better living). Nonetheless, there's yet more that can and should be done.

    On the safety issue, you and many a Very Serious Person have really got this wrong. The negative propaganda value of the prison is a far greater cost than the risk that some guy we've released would end up being the patsy in some attack or other. (Back to the Kuwaiti guy: do you think the attack would not have taken place but for that guy being available? No one thinks so. He wasn't the one who planned it or set anything up. Just another sad alienated mentally disturbed kid willing to be a martyr, of who there were no shortage in Iraq at the time).

  • I have more confidence than you in the ability of a US court to render justice for crimes committed. I don't prefer it, but a military trial, using UCMJ rules and the bar on coerced evidence (as the commissions judges have been doing — the Awad case is a good model of that) is way way better than just throwing up our hands, proclaiming that these men are necessarily pawns in our own little domestic political drama, and thus have to give their lives for our politics whether they've ever done anything that's a crime under any law at all.

  • I certainly don't think Guantanamo is defensible as indefinitely; I'm just looking for some discussion of our options. I think you have a good point – most of these people are going to be let out sooner or later, like any prison. Thus, the way we treat them is of critical importance, as are the circumstances we release them into. Without some sort of trial to determine their guilt or innocence, we have a ridiculous system where we release people who go on to attack us again, and we continue to detain people who in all likelihood never broke any laws.

    And some of the released have taken on some sort of leadership positions in terrorist organizations –

    But it remains a question whether they were leaders before or whether they were hardened by their experience in Gitmo and became more prominent after their release. I also think Yemenis are a little different than prisoners from other countries because Yemen is currently in a state of unrest and civil conflict. Thus, releasing any prisoners back to there when they are likely to join the current insurgency, or be arrested by the Yemeni government, seems unwise. However, if the prison stays open, I agree – conditions need to be improved, especially with the understanding that not everyone there is guilty and most of them will eventually be released.

    • See, I don’t think you can tell anything at all about whether some guy is likely to join one of the Yemeni insurgencies by whether he was willing to take a job, or otherwise participate in the Afghan civil war. It’s one thing to leave a dirt poor country and go get a job on an adventure where you get to fight for the faith against a faction supported by Iran, Russia, and India. It’s quite another to go home, after years in jail, and take up arms against one’s own country (or, in the case of prisoners with family members in the military, one’s own family).

      The fact that Saudi returnees — a single digit percentage at that — are hiding out in the mountains of Yemen doesn’t seem all that relevant to this calculus either.

      The prison is not going to be closed. There is no support for closure in the holdovers from the previous administration that are running the policy, no votes to be had from supporters of the previous administration, and altogether too many ‘serious people’ running away from the rule of law at the first hint of risk.

  • *There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  • *When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

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