Guantanamo -- Washington's Expensive Mistake

We've all spent money on things we shouldn't have. As a teen, I blew my Saturday job earnings on a stud earring I thought would make me irresistible. A few weeks ago my brother-in-law impulse-bought a kilt. But the richer you are, the more spectacular the mistake you can make.

Boxer Mike Tyson spent over $2 million on a gold bathtub. Former Côte d'Ivoire President Félix Houphouët-Boigny had the $300 million Basilica of Yamoussoukro built at his birthplace, and oil baron Ari Onassis spent an undisclosed but presumably pricey wad upholstering his bar seats in the rare foreskin of the minke whale.

But nothing quite compares to the U.S. government's waste of money on the prison at Guantanamo Bay. This week I'm at Guantanamo observing the pretrial hearings of the five men accused of the September 11, 2001 mass murders, and I am seeing up close how the military commission works and where the money goes.

It costs around $3 million to keep a detainee here for a year (compared to around $34,000 at a high security federal prison) for a total of about $397 million. As the lead prosecutor Brigadier General Martins said this week "We're paying hundreds of thousands of dollars on linguistic services." That's a lot of earrings, or for the money saved for a year on just one prisoner the government could pay for over 100 full tuition four-year college scholarships.

Then there's the constant upgrading. An underwater fiber-optic cable for the U.S. base's IT infrastructure is due to be operational early next year and is budgeted at $31 million, and there's a $200 million request from the military to repair Camp 7, where "high value" detainees are held. This money would be saved if the detainees were held in federal prisons.

Moving the accused into the federal court system makes sense in all sorts of ways. It's a cheaper and better move. Since September 2001 the federal system has convicted nearly 500 people of terrorist crimes, whereas military commissions at Guantanamo have achieved only eight convictions - four of which were later overturned. But too many in Washington are committed to keeping Guantanamo open, despite its inefficiency and expense.

Apart from the cash there's also a massive worldwide reputational cost to the United States. I haven't had many conversations with foreign government officials in the last few years about U.S. policy and human rights where Guantanamo wasn't mentioned.

And if President Obama fails to fulfill his promise to shut the place down before he leaves office, the Guantanamo experiment could be spectacularly sucking taxpayers' money and draining U.S. international credibility for many more years to come. The court only meets every couple of months in a court house built for the commissions at a cost of $12 million. And there's little sign of the trials of those accused of the September 11, 2001 attacks starting, let alone finishing.

The current process is sometimes "like watching grass grow," concedes Brigadier General Martins, "but that's the process."

On Monday there was about an hour of court discussion before the case was adjourned, and the same yesterday. All of today's session was cancelled last night, apparently over an issue of translating a document. We hope we'll restart again on Thursday, but there's no guarantee.

I'm asking as many experts on the process here as I can for their best guess at when real trials might begin. Responses range from 2018 to 2020 (the most popular guess) to pained groans to "never" but a better question might be how much, in the end, will it all cost?