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How to Shut Down Gitmo


The House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee focused on the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility (Gitmo) Wednesday, holding a hearing with military officials in charge of running the base and lawyers who have represented the detainees imprisoned there.

It's my belief that every day Gitmo continues to operate is another day we make ourselves more vulnerable to terrorism. Terrorists use Gitmo as a recruiting tool, evidence that the U.S. is a repressive regime rather than a free and democratic country. To begin regaining our standing in the international community we need to shut it down.

While President Bush and Defense Secretary Gates state publicly they would like to close Gitmo, it has become clear they are not interested in taking the steps necessary to do so. Closing the facility is easy, what to do with the current 385 detainees is more difficult. One proposal is to insert them into the military brig system within the U.S. At the hearing, this idea was discussed but the military brass offered up a number of reasons why they believe it wouldn't work. I'm going to dissect those reasons, showing that their concerns are misplaced.

1) If we moved detainees to the U.S. military brig system, detainees charged with crimes would have to be tried in the federal courts and could not be tried in military commissions as is the case currently.

That's patently false. Absent congressional action, the government would retain the ability to decide where to bring criminal cases and would retain the full ability to try detainees before military commissions.

2) Bringing trials to the U.S. would create a media circus.

In my northern Virginia district, legal proceedings against Zacarias Moussaoui were conducted soon after 9/11 at the Alexandria Federal Courthouse. Media covered the proceedings, but to call it a circus would be far-fetched. The proceedings were open for all the world to see, showing the U.S. to be a nation governed by the rule of law that gives the accused a panoply of rights and highly competent legal representation. It is in the interest of our country to have this type of media coverage. The war on terror is an ideological struggle, one that will not be won militarily but rather on the battlefield of public opinion.

3) Moving the detainees would cripple our efforts to gain intelligence from them on al Qaeda.

We've had most of these detainees in custody for more than four years. Whatever information could have been gained would have been gained during that time. It's also unclear how locking these individuals up in a military prison hinders any effort to continue interrogating them, unless of course those interrogation methods include torture. Defense officials stated at Wednesday's hearing that the nation's intelligence operations would be crippled if no further info were to come from these detainees. That is pure hyperbole.

4) If detainees were moved to military facilities in the U.S., they would have to be segregated from other inmates and would require extraordinary security measures, neither of which is possible to do.

Again, this assertion is false. Segregating detainees in the military brig system is not a major issue. In fact, it is readily doable at many military brigs. Newer facilities especially, are designed with cells organized as separate pods, enabling them to segregate the inmate population individually.

Some special security measures may be needed but hardly the extraordinary measures suggested by Defense officials. Moussaoui was held in the Alexandria jail for over 3 years. Extraordinary security was not required. There were some added measures taken, but generally the jail was able to function as it always had. Life for residents living nearby continued with relatively little disruption. Already, the military brig system houses many very dangerous people, including nine who are on death row. There is no reason to believe it is not fully capable of securely housing Guantanamo detainees.

4) There are no readily available facilities in to the U.S. to house the detainees.

Colonel Dwight Sullivan, Chief Defense Counsel in the Office of Military Commissions, made clear at the hearing that space is currently available to house the Guantanamo detainees. At Ft. Leavenworth, there are over 100 empty beds. At the Charleston Navy Base, a similar number of vacancies exist. There are at total of over 25 military brig facilities in the U.S.

5) If moved to the U.S., "legal issues" would arise resulting in litigation that could derail the military's efforts to try detainees charged with crimes.

This is hardly a major problem since only four detainees have been criminally charged. Nonetheless, it is possible that some litigation over "legal issues" would occur if detainees were moved to the U.S. Such litigation would not terminate or dismiss the pending detainee criminal proceedings, but might delay them. However, most detainees after five years in custody are seeking their day in court, seeing it as an opportunity to prove their innocence. A delay in their criminal trial is a delay in the day they might be acquitted.

6) The trial facilities at Guantanamo are adequate. There's no reason to move detainees anywhere else.

According to both Col. Sullivan and Thomas Wilner, a lawyer representing a number of the detainees, this is not the case. The government estimates there will be as many as 80 criminal trials of detainees. With only one courtroom at Gitmo, it would, according to Col. Sullivan, take nearly two decades to try everyone.

Gitmo also lacks housing for attorneys and witnesses. It has very little work space. Cell phones don't work there and fax machines are often broken. Transportation to the island is difficult and unreliable (one flight a day from Ft. Lauderdale on an unpressurized 10 seat propeller plane). Lawyers are quartered over an hour by bus and ferry from the facility. And everything is subject to delay by the military for unknown security reasons.

In sum, Gitmo is a legal black hole where -- guilty or not -- 385 individuals have been left to rot. Clearly, there are some bad people at Gitmo that need to be tried and punished. But we need to try them and determine their guilt or innocence in a location other than Guantanamo Bay. Whether we like it or not, the Gitmo facility has diminished our credibility in the world and has inflamed hostility against the U.S. It's past time we shut it down and Wednesday's hearing further exposed why and how we do it.