Moving Gitmo Prisoners to the U.S. Still Makes Sense
President Barack Obama has finally sent his plan to close Gitmo to Congress, where it will be dead on arrival. Nevertheless, he should push ahead on his own.
Under the Obama plan, moving the military prison that’s now in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is largely a change of ZIP code. Prisoners won’t suddenly have a fresh array of legal rights and protections. But closing Gitmo would mark a change: It would help improve America’s reputation, and spare Obama’s successor a fractious and increasingly irrelevant debate.
The practical case for closing Gitmo remains compelling. The Pentagon has studied 13 possible domestic sites for the prison (though it doesn’t name any); such a facility would house between 30 and 60 prisoners, either undergoing military tribunals or indefinite detention. The operating costs would be far less than Gitmo’s, with some of the savings coming from new efficiencies in the military tribunal system.
True, some of the rationale for moving the prison has faded over the past seven years. Outrage among U.S. allies has waned, particularly as many of them have become targets of jihadi terrorism. There are now just 91 prisoners at Gitmo, and of those, 45 or so are deemed no longer a threat and in various stages of being released. There are only a few dozen “worst of the worst” prisoners.
Still, a smaller Gitmo is still Gitmo, needlessly providing terrorists and enemies of the U.S. a moral cudgel and possible recruiting tool. And the arguments for denying the president funds to make this switch are weak. Concerns over citizen safety are overblown: The federal prison system hosts plenty of mass murderers and terrorists, and the new facility would be under Pentagon control, just like Guantanamo. The detainees already enjoy some legal protections in their Cuban home, including habeas corpus, and moving them to the lower 48 wouldn’t change things -- just as it wouldn’t grant them a host of new rights.
In the end, there remain two strong reasons to move the detainees to the U.S. One is that the war on terrorism shows no signs of abating, and the U.S. needs a place to hold future detainees. The Obama administration has refused to send new prisoners to Gitmo, more or less abandoning capture missions in favor of killing targets with drones or special forces. There is little doubt that valuable intelligence has been lost by not having a safe place to send captives.
Second, the next president, whatever his or her stance on closing Gitmo, is going to have far bigger issues to deal with than where several dozen terrorists and terrorist suspects should live out the rest of their days.
Closing Guantanamo has been one of Obama’s signature promises, one he pledged to keep on his second day in office. He will almost certainly fail to get Congress to cooperate. But by using his executive authority, Obama can allow the next president to focus on more important aspects of the fight against terrorism.
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