Don't Close Gitmo. Move It.
Coming soon to a federal prison near you?
Barack Obama's promise to close Gitmo predates his presidency and will probably outlast it. Obviously it'd be better for the president (and, in this case, the country) if he could keep his promise. More important, however, is getting the policy right -- and that may require keeping Gitmo open or moving it to the continental U.S.
The policy question here is not insignificant: Where and how to detain and try dangerous men captured by U.S. forces or authorities in the struggle against global terrorism.
The military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains a stain on the U.S.'s moral character and global reputation, even if torture is no longer practiced there. And as the U.S. embarks on long-overdue economic and political outreach to the autocratic regime of Cuba, it might be wise to remove a controversial symbol of human bondage from its shores.
That said, the U.S. needs to fully acknowledge and explain its use of indefinite detainment and military justice. The population at Guantanamo has shrunk by more than 80 percent in the last decade, to 122 prisoners. But that number is never going to get to zero.
As many as 70 of those remaining are considered too great a threat to be released in the foreseeable future. And transferring the others is hardly easy: Some will never be allowed to return to their home countries, and so third-party nations need to be bribed into taking them. Even the release of those detainees is worrisome. Regardless of whether their recidivism rate is 19 percent (as it was before Obama's presidency) or 7 percent (the rate since he took office), far too many of those released from Gitmo have returned to jihad.
An equally important reason for a new prison is that the Obama administration's refusal to admit new detainees to Gitmo has made killing terrorists the only route for the military and CIA to handle "imminent threats." Not only does death-by-drone seem less humane than detention, it sacrifices any hope of gaining human intelligence in cases where abduction is a practical alternative. Terrorists and jihadis who are captured now are usually left in the hands of allies whose interrogatory techniques are less humane than those of the U.S.
Last, there would still need to be a place to hold military tribunals, a process reformed under the Obama administration and the proper forum for detainees unsuitable for criminal prosecution. Not all alleged terrorists can or should be tried in civilian courts.
Admittedly, no state or local government has shown any interest in hosting such a facility, and Congress looks likely to continue blocking any funding for one. But that can change: the success of the federal "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colorado, shows that security concerns can be overcome. And even in an improving economic climate, the lure of jobs and federal dollars could achieve the seemingly impossible. Another possibility is building the prison on military property such as Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Ideally, moving Gitmo would be part of a broad new congressional authorization for the use of force in the fight against Islamic State. As it debates a new authorization, Congress will have to confront a lot of hard questions. How broadly should the enemy be defined? How long should the authorization last? What kind of disclosure should it require from the White House? One question, however, is easily answered: The U.S. still needs something like Guantanamo. It just needs it closer to home.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.