President Barack Obama returned to the offensive yesterday with a forceful argument in support of his decision to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and reform U.S. detention policy. And it was none too soon, as the momentum of his sweeping actions in January had evaporated. The president’s reasoned approach to detention policy stood in sharp contrast to former Vice President Dick Cheney, whose outlook is frozen in time on September 12, 2001. Obama’s framework contains some worrisome elements, and important decisions remain, but his reliance on the wisdom of experience is far preferable to Cheney’s willful ignorance.
Guantánamo is often described as a recruiting tool for terrorists, but the phrase has been repeated so many times that it is no longer connected with the words’ real meaning. President Obama explained it clearly to the American people yesterday when he said that “the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”
The responsibility for terrorist acts always rests with those who commit the actual violence, but a president cannot simply ignore the effects of American policy. Because Guantánamo deviated so sharply from American values and ideals, it reinforced the message of our enemies and undermined our ability to successfully fight the conflict with Al Qaeda. Closing Guantánamo is not merely an elective decision; it is a national security imperative.
That message had been lost since the president announced his intention to close Guantánamo just two days after taking the oath of office. Obama established an interagency policy review on a six-month timeline to sort out the details of his plan and then focused on the half dozen other pressing crises he inherited from the Bush administration. Congressional Republicans more interested in scaring the American people than in protecting them stepped into that vacuum.
They have taken to the airwaves and released a series of web videos that aim to frighten Americans into believing that Guantánamo detainees are a threat from inside maximum security U.S. prisons. These conservatives do not care about the safety of the American people, only about spreading fear for political purposes. The truth is that more than 200 international terrorists are securely locked away in American prisons, there has never been an attack on a prison holding any of these terrorists, and no one has ever escaped from a “supermax” prison.
The conservative campaign of fear has dominated the debate and left the administration’s allies on Capitol Hill on the defensive. The Senate leadership this week decided to live to fight another day rather than go down to defeat. The president’s strong statement on the justifications for closing Guantánamo should give his allies on the Hill more ammunition for the coming fight.
Dick Cheney has clearly thrown in his lot with the fear mongers. It is depressing to watch a former vice president of the United States repeat blatant lies and distortions with the objective of undermining the American government and spreading terror among the American people. Cheney told Americans yesterday “that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger.”
Clinging to the discredited phrase “worst of the worst” to describe Guantánamo detainees is emblematic of Cheney’s retrograde approach. But even then, he never explained why it is so dangerous, probably because he can’t.
Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of both the 1993 World Trade Center attack and the foiled Bojinka Pacific airliner plot, was captured in Pakistan, convicted in U.S. court, and is serving a life sentence in the supermax in Florence, CO. No one hears about Yousef anymore because he is not a threat. Dozens of other terrorists responsible for hundreds of murders are similarly rotting in U.S. jails and are no longer threats to the American people or the world.
Yet the bankruptcy of his opponents’ attacks does not immunize President Obama from legitimate criticism of his policies. Obama made a poor choice in deciding to revive the military commissions for trials of some Guantánamo detainees. But the biggest decision remains unresolved: What to do with the president’s fifth category of Guantánamo detainees “who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.”
This framework clearly implies some version of preventive detention, but there has been a lot of loose talk about preventive detention that is not helpful. Military detention of enemy fighters to prevent them from returning to the battlefield has long been an accepted part of the laws of war. The Supreme Court sustained such detention of individuals engaged in an armed conflict against the United States in Afghanistan in its 2004 decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld.
The president made two important and welcome distinctions in describing this fifth category. He referenced law of war authority and appeared to limit only to Guantánamo the reach of any decision regarding this type of detention. The key question is not whether such detention is justified. It is whether the Obama administration will continue the Bush policy and extend the authority of the military to detain individuals captured outside of the traditional confines of military detention—enemy fighters engaged in an armed conflict captured in a zone of active combat.
Yesterday, President Obama put forward a vigorous intellectual exploration of detention policy and the issues facing the United States today and those we will face in the future. Dick Cheney followed with a warped and frustrated rant that is stuck in the past and completely devoid of relevance to our current challenges. The contrast is striking, and Obama’s approach, while not perfect, still provides us with the best opportunity to get U.S. detention policy back on track and consistent with the demands of security and our values.
Read also: How to Close Guantánamo
Ken Gude is the Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress.