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US Military Chief's Strategic Call to Close Guantánamo

01/16/2008 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Widely reported in the last few days were comments made by the United States' most senior military official, Admiral Mike Mullen, during a visit to Guantánamo on Sunday. In his first trip to the prison since he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October, Admiral Mullen told reporters, "I'd like to see it shut down." Asked why, he explained, "More than anything else it's been the image - how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States. I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us that it's been pretty damaging."

Mullen also pointed out that he was "encouraged" to hear that the prison population had been reduced considerably over the last year, but his criticism of Guantánamo was not as one-sided as some press reports made it appear. Indicating the enormous gulf between his wishes and the administration's point of view, he conceded that he was "not aware that at this point there is anyone considering that [closing the prison]," and explained, "We certainly look at this mission as an enduring mission until someone comes in and shuts it down. I have no idea how long it will be. The political leadership would have to make that decision."

As the head of the US navy, Mullen had previously visited the prison in December 2005. On that occasion his opinion was not recorded, although one of his companions, General Bantz J. Craddock, the commander of CENTCOM, delivered a typical morale-boosting speech to the troops, in which he said, "The dedication and professionalism of JTF [Joint Task Force] members, who continue to operate under some very challenging conditions, is evident to all who visit Guantánamo. Our Nation can be proud of what they contribute to the Global War on Terrorism."

Shades of this unswerving and unquestioning praise for Guantánamo as part of the front line in the "War on Terror" could be perceived in Mullen's comments on Sunday that "JTF Guantánamo has performed extraordinarily well and has really delivered during a difficult mission," and his claim that "The world is focused on Guantánamo Bay. We've got to get it right every single hour. The consequences of getting it wrong could be global."

This analysis of Guantánamo's role was also highlighted in his comment that "there are some really, really bad people here who have perpetrated extraordinary crimes," although it was his addendum to this comment - that these "bad people" will "go through some kind of due process, due legal process" - which, in conjunction with his baldly-stated wish to see the prison closed, indicated that he was carefully laying out a position on Guantánamo that echoed the opinions of defense secretary Robert Gates.

It was, of course, Gates who appointed Mullen to his new job, declaring that he had "the vision, strategic insight and integrity to lead America's armed forces," and it was also clear that his appointment marked a break from the Pentagon regime of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Almost as soon as he replaced Rumsfeld, in November 2006, Gates called for the closure of Guantánamo, and for trials to be held on the US mainland. He declared that the prison's reputation was so tainted that any verdicts from trials held there - in the much-criticized Military Commissions - would lack legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Although his opinion was backed up by Condoleezza Rice and the State Department, however, he was overruled by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and, in particular, by Vice President Dick Cheney, Guantánamo's stoutest defender, and the prime architect - with the invaluable aid of his close advisors, including David Addington - of the government's "War on Terror" policies.

Unlike President Bush, who has stated publicly that he wants to see Guantánamo closed (even if such a comment is as reliable as his claim that the US "does not torture"), Cheney has not budged an inch on Guantánamo. Shortly after the prison opened, in January 2002, he declared, in one of the most hyperbolic speeches on record about the detainees, "These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort. And they need to be detained, treated very cautiously, so that our people are not at risk."

In June 2005, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to challenge the basis of their detention, Cheney's opinions had barely changed. He told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield, primarily in Afghanistan. They're terrorists. They're bomb makers. They're facilitators of terror. They're members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban." This in itself was inaccurate, as the tribunals convened to assess the detainees' status as "enemy combatants" had demonstrated that a large number of detainees were not "picked up on the battlefield" and were not caught in Afghanistan either, but although he acknowledged that some detainees had been released, explaining, "We've let go those that we've deemed not to be a continuing threat," his conclusion was as sweepingly shrill as it had been when the prison opened. "The 520-some that are there now," he insisted, "are serious, deadly threats to the United States."

By summer 2007, when the prison's population had dropped still further, to 360 detainees, Cheney had downscaled the numbers, but his rhetoric was essentially the same. Appearing again on CNN, he explained that he was opposed to plans to close Guantánamo, and claimed that there were "hundreds of people" like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - the senior al-Qaeda operative who stated in a tribunal at Guantánamo in March that he was the architect of 9/11 - who were still held in the prison. This was in spite of the fact that figures provided at the same time by the Pentagon's Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC) stated that a maximum of 80 detainees were presumed to be significant enough to face a trial.

Robert Gates, however, has refused to drop the issue of Guantánamo's closure, and, as mentioned above, has even dared to contemplate a course of action that provokes fits of hysterical fighting talk from other Republicans: transferring those regarded as truly dangerous to prisons on the US mainland. When this issue was raised last summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to persuade his fellow Senators to declare, by 94 votes to 3, that detainees, "including senior members of al-Qaeda, should not be released to American society" or transferred into "facilities in American communities and neighborhoods," spelling out his complaints in a speech that should have mortified the many Democrats who claim to oppose the existence of the prison, but who were evidently not listening when they cast their votes.

"Some in Congress have actually proposed that we require the President to move terrorist detainees held at Guantánamo Bay to the continental United States and keep them here," McConnell fulminated. "That means moving them into facilities in cities and small towns across America in states like California and Illinois and Kentucky. Well, I can guarantee you that my constituents don't want terrorists housed in their backyards in Fort Knox, Fort Wright or anywhere else within the Commonwealth. I know I don't."

Just three weeks ago, at a press conference at the Pentagon, Gates again raised this issue of transferring detainees to the US mainland in a speech that specifically addressed the problems associated with the prison's closure (some of which were highlighted in an article I wrote for Guantánamo's sixth anniversary on Friday). "I think that the principal obstacle has been resolving a lot of the legal issues associated with closing Guantánamo, and what you do with the prisoners when they come back [to the United States]," he said. "Because of some of these legal concerns - some of which are shared by people in both parties on Capitol Hill - there has not been much progress in this respect."

General Mullen's musings do nothing to address the inertia referred to by Robert Gates over the plans to close Guantánamo, but they represent a break from the views of his predecessors, General Peter Pace, and General Richard Myers - both appointed by Donald Rumsfeld - and should be seen, therefore, as constituting another salvo in the defense secretary's struggle to persuade the White House to restore the rule of law in the "War on Terror."

Seen in this light, Mullen's appointment - and his statements on Sunday - reflect the changing perspective of the military over the last six years, as can be seen from a brief review of statements made by his predecessors.

General Myers, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Guantánamo opened, had a way with hyperbole to rival Dick Cheney. On January 11, 2002, when the first detainees arrived at the prison, he told reporters that they were restrained because, given the opportunity, they would "gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 [military plane] to bring it down." It was an opinion that he maintained throughout his tenure. In June 2005, after Amnesty International issued a report describing Guantánamo as "the gulag of our time," he called the report "absolutely irresponsible," and insisted that the United States was doing its best to detain fighters who, if released, "would turn right around and try to slit our throats, slit our children's throats."

His successor, General Pace, who was appointed by Rumsfeld in September 2005, reportedly showed a more skeptical approach to the conduct of the "War on Terror," and was credited with tackling his boss in private, recommending that Guantánamo should be closed, and stating his belief that the United States should follow the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners, even those in al-Qaeda. In public, however, little of this was evident.

Speaking about the Guantánamo detainees at a National Press Club Luncheon in February 2006, he conceded that they presented a dilemma, admitting that "some of those who have been at Guantánamo over time have been judged to be less threatening than they were when they were picked up on the battlefield, and some of those have returned to their countries and resumed a, quote, 'normal' life," but adding that "Others have gone immediately back into the battle and have tried to kill us again." His conclusion, however, followed a harder line than Admiral Mullen's recent pronouncements, with unmistakable echoes of the stance taken by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. "But these are unlawful enemy combatants," he said. "They are our sworn enemies. They have said that they want to kill us and do away with our way of life."

In letting slip his calculated sound bite last Sunday, Admiral Mullen may have only taken a small step towards the closure of Guantánamo - aligning the military with the Pentagon and the State Department - but it may be one that ultimately proves significant.