What’s Lost in the Move-Guantánamo-North Debate

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has been doing a lot of public hand-wringing lately over what he’s going to do with the Guantánamo detainees he’s decided will have to be moved to the United States and detained “indefinitely.” That has of course raised predictable objections from Republicans in each of the districts he’s mentioned he might want to transfer those prisoners to — namely, the Fort Leavenworth military detention facility in Kansas and the Navy Brig in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s almost as if the administration wanted to elicit those objections before coming out with its own long-promised plan for how it intends to close Guantánamo, the promise President Obama made on Day Two of his first term.

Couldn’t the administration come up with a more constructive way to get this done?

We’ve seen this play before. Back when Attorney General Eric Holder announced he wanted to transfer just the five men accused of plotting the September 11 terrorist attacks to New York for trial, it was as if he’d announced the site of the Armageddon. Protesters gathered at Manhattan’s Foley Square, less than a mile from the site of the terror attacks nine years earlier, pronouncing the nation’s first African-American attorney general a traitor and calling for his lynching. Although we haven’t heard anyone claiming Carter, a white man, ought to be lynched, we have heard the predictable NIMBY pronouncements from the likes of South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who announced last week, “We are not going to allow any terrorists” to be housed at the Navy Brig in Charleston. Meanwhile Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has threatened to hold up the nomination of the next Army secretary if the administration goes ahead with plans to move the detainees to Leavenworth.

It’s not clear what the administration expected to accomplish by publicly floating its tentative explorations of a new site on US soil for some portion of the Guantánamo detainees it claims cannot be tried or released, or why it hasn’t already figured out these details and worked them out with local politicians whose districts stand to gain huge amounts of federal funding for accepting Guantánamo prisoners. But more importantly, it’s not clear why the Secretary of Defense isn’t more focused on transferring the 52 detainees at Guantánamo who’ve already been cleared for release for many years. He is reportedly the stumbling block to their leaving.

Whether it’s the sickly, 75-pound Tariq Ba Odah who was cleared to leave six years ago or the 49 Yemenis who could be transferred to other countries with security protections, transferring the detainees who’ve been cleared to go by a painstaking multi-agency review process ought to be Secretary Carter’s number one concern right now. After all, these men, none convicted or even accused of any crime, have been imprisoned for more than a decade. They remain at Guantánamo at the absurd cost of $3.4 million per detainee annually. Few will lament their transfer. And the fewer that remain at Guantánamo, the more absurd the cost will become of maintaining them there.

Carter’s other priority ought to be making sure the rest of the men finally get the Periodic Review Board hearings they were promised by the President in an executive order issued more than four years ago. Those thorough security reviews would likely lead to more detainees being eligible for transfer, especially since so many of them were captured based on unreliable information from foreign intelligence agents, many of whom were paid bounties to turn suspects over.

The Obama administration inherited a lousy legacy with Guantánamo, and it’s committed to find a way to wind it down. Some people will object, for both sensible reasons — that ultimately, no one should be held in indefinite detention by the United States anywhere — or for nonsensical ones, such as the fear that an aging former al-Qaeda trainee will manage to escape a US military prison and terrorize a town in Kansas. Let President Obama take the heat for that — that’s what second terms are all about.

Carter, meanwhile, needs to step away from the false debate Republicans are trying to stage. His job is to make sure every detainee who can be safely transferred out of Guantánamo gets out of there. As soon as possible. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).