On January 20, 2009, a new President will enter office. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said that they would shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, where the United States now holds about 255 prisoners captured abroad in the war on terrorism. So what’s like to happen to Guantanamo on January 20? Not much.
The reason is that dealing with detainees is far more challenging than the rhetoric this election season has made it seem, and calls to just close Guantanamo raise more questions than they answer. These points—which we have long espoused—are the conclusion of a front-page article in today’s New York Times.
First off, more than 60 of the detainees have actually been cleared for release, but few countries actually want to take these individuals, many of whom have received advanced weapons training and subscribe to radical ideologies. Some 17 of them are currently in court to compel entry into the United States.
Another large group were captured after gun battles and other active hostilities. Some are up for war crimes charges, some are not.
The government has compiled extensive dossiers on all the detainees, based largely on classified information, recounting their histories and explaining their continued threat justifying detainment. In various forms, these files are being subject to judicial scrutiny as detainees contest their detentions in habeas corpus proceedings.
Even Obama, who has called the detainee war crimes trials “an enormous failure,” acknowledges that “the majority of the folks in Guantanamo, I suspect, are there for a reason.” They are, he had said, “dangerous people.”
Closing Guantanamo, then, doesn’t mean just setting all the detainees free. That’s not a credible, or safe, option.
And if we’re going to do more than just relocate the detainees to some new Guantanamo—let’s call it “Shwantanamo”—we’ll need to put in place a comprehensive preventative detention regime that addresses the need to detain terrorists to prevent them from carrying out their plots.
That’s not something that can be done overnight. Getting the policy right, and putting into place a legal regime that will serve us over the long haul, will take time. No thoughtful observer expects that Guantanamo will be shuttered immediately. Even Human Rights First, a longtime critic of the facility, estimates that its fast-track plan to close it would take at least year.
So if the next President aims to close Guantanamo, he’ll need to start with a big-picture view and acknowledge, as Obama has, that the job must be done “prudently” and given the time that it requires. Anything less won’t be an improvement and won’t make us safer.