Inside the SJC’s Guantanamo Debate

Last week, we wrote about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Guantanamo Bay.  The debate, entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights Implications,” brought together members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Dick Durbin (D, IL); Chairman of the Full Committee Patrick Leahy (D, VT); Ranking-Member Ted Cruz (R, TX); and Rep. Mike Pompeio (R, KS-4), among others.  Testifying were top-ranking members of our armed forces and members of international human rights organizations, including Major General Paul Eaton, U.S. Army (Ret.); Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, M.D., U.S. Army (Ret.); Lieutenant Joshua Fryday, Judge Advocate General’s Corps., U.S. Navy; Frank Gaffney, Founder and President, Center for Security Policy; and Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First.

Most of the usual Guantanamo-related topics were discussed, including arguments for and against the closure of Gitmo, what that closure might mean for American national security, and how we might go about transferring current detainees to domestic prisons or foreign countries for continued detention or release.  As we’ve come to expect, testimony from Congressional representatives was fairly predictable based on party membership.  Chairman Durbin opened the hearing by calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, stated that Gitmo had become an “international eyesore” and that “the Administration could be doing more to close (GTMO)…, [but] the President’s authority has been limited by Congress.”  Nothing too groundbreaking there, but it’s always nice to see someone in a position of authority acknowledging that this isn’t all President Obama’s fault.  Like I’ve said before, this isn’t a unilateral decision for the President to make.  It’s going to take a level of bipartisan cooperation that’s been completely absent in Congress in recent history.

But even if President Obama can’t single-handedly close Guantanamo, Chairman Durbin noted that through the FY14 Defense Bill, passed by the House Armed Services Committee in early June, he has an expanded ability to dispose of prisoners (calm down, disposing means releasing or transferring in this context) as he sees fit.  But we’ve seen problems with this as well.  First, where do we release or transfer these detainees?  Just a few days ago we saw Senator Saxby Chambliss voice concerns about releasing detainees to their home countries where they may attempt to join or re-join al-Qaeda.  Our European allies have a history of rejecting transfers of Guantanamo detainees.  And we certainly aren’t going to give them asylum here.  So even if the President’s powers to release or transfer detainees have been expanded, it’s still a delicate situation.

Ranking-Member Cruz was one of the few speakers to advocate for keeping Guantanamo Bay open, bashing the Obama administration for it’s policy and saying that we “continue to apologize for continuing the policy.”  Senator Cruz’s main argument was that we can’t embrace a “utopian fiction” where released detainees embrace global peace and pledge not to take up arms against the United States.  I could understand that concern if we were talking about releasing KSM.  I can understand that concern if we’re talking about releasing any detainee that we know was involved in attacks against the United States.  But I’m pretty sure nobody is calling for those detainees to be released.  So what about the detainees with no formal charges or evidence against them?  Are we going to hold them for the rest of their lives just because there’s a chance they could join al-Qaeda if we release them?  Apparently Senator Cruz would say yes.

Major General Eaton and Brigadier General Xenakis also testified in front of the panel, both advocating for the closure of the detention center.  Major General Eaton stated clearly that “[t]here is no national security reason to keep Guantanamo open,” and even went so far as to say the keeping it open this long has undermined national security by damaging our “moral leadership, political leadership, military power and economic power.”  Brigadier General Xenakis attacked the much-covered force-feeding policy, stating that it violates not only the basic ethics of the medical field, but also the Geneva Convention.

Rep. Pompeio joined Senator Cruz’s position, making the bold claim that “there are no human rights violations occurring at [GTMO].”  He also voiced concerns that foreign nations would torture detainees if we were to transfer them.  Now, I’m not saying I can’t see any reason behind the force-feeding policy.  I get that we don’t want upwards of 40 detainees dying of malnutrition on our watch.  But to say shoving a rubber tube through the nose and into the stomach of a fully conscious human being in an extremely painful fashion is not a human rights violation is borderline ludicrous.

The way I see it, the only semi-logical argument for keeping Guantanamo Bay open came from Mr. Gaffney.  Mr. Gaffney argued that Gitmo should remain open until a safe and effective alternative is pinpointed.  That much I can get on board with.  I already pointed out that there are some holes in the current plan.  But Mr. Gaffney’s seems to be worried about detainees escaping from super-max prisons on U.S. soil and rejoining al-Qaeda or remaining in the U.S. to plan attacks.  Is this what we’re really concerned about?  We already trust maximum security penitentiaries to hold our most notorious murderers, so why does it matter what their nationality is?  According to documents from the New York State Department of Corrections, there were a total of 10 escapes from detention facilities of any kind between 2006 and 2010.  That equates to a rate of .03 escapes per 1,000 inmates during that time period, and includes statistics from ALL New York state penitentiaries.  I, for one, am no too worried about detainees, who will probably have additional monitoring in place, escaping from super-max prisons.  Again, I agree that we need a rock-solid plan in place before we close Guantanamo, but the concerns cited by Mr. Gaffney are simply not realistic.

That’s probably a good thing since the plan proposed by Democrats involved transferring detainees to the same super-max facilities that Mr. Gaffney is so worried about.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) pointed out that it will cost tax payers roughly $551 million to operate Guantanamo Bay in 2013, and roughly $2.1 million per detainee.  According to her estimates, it would cost only $287,000 to house a detainee in a super-max facility here in the U.S.  Especially since the sequester hit the federal government, this would obviously be a much more cost-effective model.  So on top of potentially eradicating human rights violations, we might be able to take a step towards a balanced defense budget.

All in all, we are still in a stalemate.  The hearing was essentially a summary of all the arguments we’ve heard about Guantanamo Bay over the past 5 years.  Democrats and members of the military are still pushing for its closure while Republicans are standing firm on keeping it open.  I don’t know that we’re any closer to actually closing Gitmo after the hearing, but it’s good to see that we haven’t given up the fight.

***Special thanks to Mr. Rick Erkel for reporting on the hearing

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

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