As pressure mounts to close the US's detention camp in Cuba, what would be the implications for its policy on terrorism?
Renewing his push to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, President Obama said what many of his critics have been saying for years – that it is inefficient, inspires new terrorists, alienates the US's allies and, above all, "is contrary to who we are".
Coming in response to the detainee hunger strikers, whose numbers increase every day, Obama's comments suggest that the inmates are close to accomplishing what others opposed to the prison have not: they're making it necessary that their cases get resolved. Let's revisit some myths about the prison:
1. The Guantánamo Bay prison is open for business Guantánamo Bay is in limbo. It's neither closed nor fully open. The prison hasn't accepted any new detainees since 2008. Instead, in recent months, non-US citizens accused of international terrorism and apprehended abroad have been brought into federal custody.
2. It's impossible to close Guantánamo Resettling the detainees in their home countries or in other nations is a matter of political will on the part of the president, realism on the part of Congress and trust in the nation's sizable counterterrorism measures. But it is doable.
Obama pledged last week to renew his push for Congress to reduce restrictions on prisoner transfers. Terror threats can be monitored and managed without keeping individuals in indefinite detention, especially when there isn't enough information to charge them with crimes.
3. Guantánamo detainees have been treated more harshly than inmates in federal prisons Until the recent confrontations between guards and prisoners, Guantánamo held most of its detainees in relatively lenient conditions, especially compared with federal prisons. Terrorism suspects in pretrial and post-conviction custody in the US are often kept in areas that are versions of solitary confinement.
As recently as this past fall, as many as 130 Guantánamo detainees were living in communal areas, many with access to Skype, television and a football pitch. This more relaxed policy was based on the premise that creature comforts could compensate for the lack of hope and due process afforded to the detainees. Since the hunger strikes began in February, conditions have become harsher. The recent turn toward feeding tubes, individual cells and violence between detainees and guards has made Guantánamo more like a dungeon, its inmates tormented by lives without resolution or release.
4. The military commission system offers the best chance of convictions in the war on terror The commissions were well-intentioned, but the trials, including those of the September 11 defendants, are taking for ever. In federal court, they would have concluded long ago.
Since the military commissions process began in 2006, only seven individuals have been convicted. All of those convictions are being challenged, two have been overturned and some of those remaining could still be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, hundreds have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the federal court system since 2001. At Guantánamo, only six of the remaining 166 detainees are in the process of being tried.
5. Guantánamo has indelibly stained America's reputation If the hunger strikers die, Guantánamo will become an even stronger terrorist recruitment tool. While Obama missed the chance at the start of his presidency to show that detainees can be treated more justly and compassionately than they were under his predecessor, any positive change could begin to repair the damage to America's reputation.
The administration's one-person-at-a-time approach to closing Guantánamo has proved fruitless. Bold gestures are needed – for starters, the cleared detainees should be sent to their home countries, even to Yemen. And paying restitution to detainees and helping them reintegrate into their home countries or new locations would go a long way toward eliminating the stain of Guantánamo.
Time is of the essence. Of the 100 hunger-striking detainees, four are hospitalised, and 23 are being force-fed. The best option is to release the inmates who can't be tried, end the policy of detention outside the laws of war and restore the sense of moral dignity that has withered with every day of Guantánamo's existence. As Obama said this past week: "It needs to stop."
This story appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013