Thank God for Gitmo!

The punditocracy's attacks on Obama for the decision to close Guantanamo deserve close scrutiny, write Eric Alterman and Danielle Ivory.

Part of a Series
Detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay participate in the morning prayer, as a U.S. guard watches nearby. (AP/Brennan Linsley)
Detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay participate in the morning prayer, as a U.S. guard watches nearby. (AP/Brennan Linsley)

Last week, the Pentagon delivered a new report to the White House, assessing the present conditions at Guantánamo Bay. Surprise, surprise—the report supports the Department of Defense’s long-held contention that Gitmo does indeed meet the Geneva Convention standard for humane treatment.

Interesting. Apparently, force feeding, pepper-sprayed toilet paper, temperature manipulation, religious and psychological abuse, sleep deprivation, isolation, broken bones, and sudden deaths count as “humane treatment” in the Pentagon lexicon. What’s more, these problems are apparently getting worse. To read the Pentagon’s version, Gitmo is once again, as Jon Stewart put it, “Geneva Convention-ish.”

This new revelation from the Pentagon is being used as justification to attack the Obama administration’s decision to close Guantánamo Bay. Since Gitmo is apparently an okay place to live, why put Americans in danger by shutting it down?

It’s a new twist on the old trade-off scenario: Gitmo is a horrible place to live, but isn’t that a small price to pay for safety?

Both questions dominate the public debate, and they share a basic underlying assumption. Locking up suspected evil-doers at Guantánamo has made our country safer. It might make us look bad abroad and it might not jive with our personal concept of inalienable human rights or due process, but these are luxuries of a pre-9/11 world—or so the argument goes.

Sean Hannity parroted this assumption in a February 20, 2009, interview with Colonel Gordon Cucullu (author of Inside Gitmo) on "Hannity’s America." (Incidentally, he spent the week prior showing profiles of the most dangerous inmates at Gitmo).

Hannity: Our president, Barack Obama, wants to get rid of enhanced interrogations… he’s proposing as you know to close it. What will that mean in terms of the safety and security of our country? Is that a pre 9-11 move?

Cucullu: I think it definitely is. Right off the bat, the first thing that he does. That announcement sends a message to our enemies that, hey, in fact, we [meaning Cucullu’s “enemies”] won. This is a victory. Just as Hamas climbed out of the rubble at Gaza, now suddenly across the Islamic fundamentalist world, what you’re seeing at Mosques and Madrassas saying, "We won, we beat them on Guantánamo, we lasted them out."

Listen to Fox News’ John Gibson when he told his co-host Trace Gallagher that “it’s on Barack Obama now. If he backs off from the Bush techniques and policies which kept us safe for the last seven, eight years, if something happens, OK, explain." Or perhaps you prefer (the allegedly liberal alternative of) MSNBC where Joe Scarborough accused Mika Brzezinski of “blaming George Bush for protecting America.” That worked. Weeks later, Brzezinski began a segment by explaining:

“Well, isn’t it safe though to make the argument that, first of all, the Bush administration kept us safe since 9-11. Nothing has happened. Whatever has been carried out in terms of homeland security actions has worked. And if you change policies and if you change your approach to homeland security, and if you change the situation in Guantánamo, you’re going to increase the risk of being attacked.”

We might as well turn this pundit job over to Dick Cheney. On February 4, he told Politico, “When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.” You see, this is all about prioritizing. Do you want humane treatment for detainees or safety for America? You can’t have both!

In fact, the argument, so widely accepted in the punditocracy, is fundamentally flawed, as The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran documented in a long and thoughtful investigation.

Chandrasekaran tells the story of Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi, who, after being held for four years at Guantánamo Bay, went from being a low-level, low-threat Taliban fighter to an “unrepentant radical,” the so-called “Lion of Guantánamo.” Ajmi eventually drove a truck full of explosives onto an Iraqi army base near Mosul on Easter Sunday, murdering 13 Iraqi soldiers and wounding 42. Chandrasekaran writes:

“What makes Ajmi’s journey from inmate to bomber so disturbing to top government officials is the fact that he never was deemed to be among the worst of the worst. He was not one of the former top Al Qaeda operatives considered ‘high value’ detainees; nor was he regarded as someone who posed a significant, long-term threat to the United States.”

Ajmi transformed from a self-described “happy detainee,” to a man who sincerely hoped his lawyer would “burn in Hell.” Chandrasekaran poses a question that few others in the press are bothering with: Did Ajmi become a bomber because of Guantánamo or in spite of it? Evidence in the article favors the former explanation. Ajmi’s lawyer, Thomas Wilner, observed: “Guantánamo took a kid—a kid who wasn’t all that bad—and it turned him into a hostile, hardened individual.”

Chandrasekaran’s report, while jarring, is hardly the first time we’ve been introduced to this destructive dynamic. Way back in 2002, the CIA reported that Al Qaeda was using Guantánamo to scout out, recruit, and train new members. Four years later, we saw the results of this mission in Iraq. In September 2006, the National Intelligence Estimate attributed growing Islamic radicalism and the threat of terrorism to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Drafts of the Estimate, according to The New York Times, “described actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.” This report emerged more than three years after the Bush administration ignored a similar predictive report by the National Intelligence Council, warning that the Iraq war could very well unleash a bloody insurgency and vastly increase the terrorist threat to Americans, as indeed it has done.

A 2008 Senate Armed Service Committee report, released jointly by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), concluded that symbols of prisoner abuse contributed to a growing threat of terrorism. The report quoted former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora, who testified that “there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq—as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat—are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.”

And in June 2008, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Improving Detainee Policy.” During the question-and-answer period, we saw this exchange between Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Tom Malinowski, the Washington Advocacy Director of Human Right Watch, concerning the detainment and release of—you guessed it—Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi and questioning the legitimacy of the U.S. detainee system as a whole:

Sen. Kyl: Do you generally agree that it is a bad thing that men like Ajmi, the Mosul suicide bomber, have been released from Guantánamo Bay? And do you agree that the United States should be allowed to detain such men to prevent them from returning to the battlefield, which in the case of terrorists, of course, could be almost anywhere?…

Malinowski: The fundamental problem we face in this conflict is that there is no shortage of misguided young men in the broader Muslim world who are willing and capable of blowing themselves up for that awful cause. We may have a few dozen in Guantánamo. There are thousands or tens of thousands out there. We released hundreds of such people, thousands at the end of the conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan, knowing that you cannot prevent terrorism completely by seeking to detain everyone in the world who wishes us harm, unless we are willing to build 10,000 Guantánamos; and that the problem of Guantánamo, and I think any system that is perceived to be illegitimate, is that it is likely to create more such people than it takes off of the battlefield. And I think one glance at any of the jihadi websites that recruit people to the fight will confirm that statement. They use Guantánamo and they will use any system that looks like Guantánamo to recruit people to kill us.

The question remains whether Guantánamo changed Ajmi to one of the “worst of the worst,” but at least someone is asking. Even though Guantánamo is set to close within the year, the question of prisons to hold detainees is still very much on the table.

The Obama administration has not made a final decision about the fate of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a prison currently scheduled to undergo a $60 million expansion, increasing its capacity to five times that of Guantánamo’s prison. Although less notorious in the American media, there is no reason to believe that Bagram is a nicer place to live than Gitmo. In 2002, two Afghan inmates died after being tortured. And in 2007, the Red Cross lodged a formal complaint about prisoners subjected to excessive isolation.

It’s hard to believe that Bagram is keeping us any safer than Gitmo, though you’d hardly know that from the guys on cable news.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking. He blogs, occasionally, at

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, DC.

More from CAP on Guantanamo:

Video: Ken Gude on Three Types of Challenges at Guantanamo

Report: How to Close Guantánamo

Brief: Closing Guantánamo 101

Column: Closing Guantanamo, Restoring American Values

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

Explore The Series