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Jayne Lyn Stahl Headshot

$50 Million for What?

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When congressional Democrats convened, on Monday, to authorize another $94.2 billion for war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, they rejected the president's request for $50 million to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. In what may be the first of many signs that the honeymoon between Congress and the executive branch is officially over, this move also portends trouble ahead for Mr. Obama's Supreme Court nomination. Republicans are already starting to grunt, and groan, on that score.

Democrats who claim to be in favor of closing Guantanamo, like Senator Dianne Feinstein who now heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, say they want to hold off until there is "a plan" in place. Republican congressional members balk at emptying out Gitmo, and letting the detainees move into a neighborhood near you. Indeed, from the way they speak, one wonders if some congressional Republicans recognize a difference between terrorists and sex offenders.

But, there is a plan in place; nobody bothered to read the fine print, or pay attention to the secretary of defense. Robert Gates, who was supposed to be an interim appointment to the Obama cabinet, suggests that the $50 million will come in handy if the U.S. wants to begin construction on another facility in which to house the detainees. Housing starts are up; why not prison starts? Mr. Gates called the funds "a hedge." Hmmmm.... a hedge fund for terrorists?

One can't help but think of the Vanguard Group, a company that runs federal detention centers and one in which a former vice president, Dick Cheney, has a large stake, and their $224 million federal prison project.

Yet, $50 million is a drop in the bucket compared with the $2 billion proposed to fight an inflated pandemic and, of course, a fraction of the $94.2 billion on the table for Iraq, and Afghanistan. Nobody in Congress has factored in how many billions will be needed for the inevitable expansion of the war effort into Pakistan.

There are some who might argue that Mr. Gates is thinking: when life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. We've got something like 500 detainees left at Gitmo and, while some may be extradited, or remanded to criminal detention, there are others who will need to be in a maximum security environment like the current holding center at Gitmo, so why not build another detention center -- one that can be federally operated, and domestically run, not unlike the federal detention centers already in operation. What needs congressional scrutiny here is not the absence of a plan, but another stab at enhancing the proverbial bottom line which, after all, is at the heart of the envisioned "hedge."

Maybe the Secretary of Defense is suggesting that the new administration also dabble in the prison-industrial complex, a pastime that has made many rich, and one which recently earned indictments, in a South Texas court, for both Dick Cheney and former attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.

For a country that has recently earned the dubious distinction of being the number one incarcerator in the world, with fully one in every 31 American adults, or 7.3 million Americans, in prison, any administration that considers righteous prosecution for wrongdoing is in the wrong business when proposing hedges for dubious potential offenders while allowing proven offenders to walk scot free.