Sgt. Bergdahl is now stateside, and the righteous fever pitch persists. Some say he was not worth the trade -- despite our duty to bring POWs home. Maybe Congress should have been notified. Maybe they should have debated it on CSPAN. Maybe we should hold referendums on freeing all future POWs -- American Idol style.
We can spill more ink on some (pretty shameless) flip-flops, but the real issue is the claim of emboldening terrorists. Or as Rep. Mike Rogers asked, "What does this tell terrorists, that if you capture a U.S. soldier, you can trade that soldier for five terrorists we've gone after?"
Sorry to say, but if the goal is to reduce terrorism, then Gitmo's existence -- that unyielding cockroach of American politics -- looms far larger.
A terrorist recruiting tool for over a decade, the line of those who want it closed is bigger than the San Antonio bandwagon. Some conspiracy-minded critics suggested that the deal reveals Obama's goal of emptying the prison. Well, yeah... that's the EXPLICIT goal of the president, according to countless speeches and Executive Order 13492. And it was the goal of President Bush as well. The five released, if you believe the law, or the age-old custom of releasing war-time prisoners at the end of the war, were never intended to remain in Guantanamo. Some analysts even believe that once the Afghan war ends, all justification for keeping Gitmo open ends with it.
Of the 800 men brought to Guantanamo, only 149 remain. Of those who remain, most have been cleared for release, but another third have been designated for "indefinite detention." "Indefinitely" -- in a place slated to close. There's the rub. And as the Supreme Court reminded us in 2008, ultimate sovereignty over Guantanamo rests with Cuba.
The White House is left with bilateral deals transferring detainees abroad -- Kuwait is the current focus of one. Many require sweeteners and concessions. This massive expenditure of geopolitical capital can't buy assurances that combatants won't rearm. What's remarkable about the latest deal is that we actually got something for the transfer -- a soldier's freedom. We have only three paths to close Gitmo: hope that we can continue to make such trades (unlikely), continue to grant incentives to other countries (with increasing cost and decreasing certainty), or fold them into our own justice system and incarcerate those found guilty. Those cleared (again), and deemed to not be a threat, can simply be deported or detained until deportation is an option (ahem, Yemen).
So where could be safer and more reliable than Cuba? Well, the federal government recently purchased the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois (formerly a state facility), which many saw as a likely destination. With an expanded perimeter that would exceed current "Supermax" standards, Thomson could be a fortress with DoD guards overseeing former Gitmo prisoners.
Those opposing the move argue that our prison guards, our facilities, our military, our rule of law, can't contain dozens of shackled men -- revealing greater damage to the national psyche after 13 years of viewing terrorists as mythical boogeymen.
Thomson, IL suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate. Soon-to-be employed residents are eager at the prospect of work. But they are confronted with a creeping new ethos that we can't handle our own problems.
Congress has banned the use of federal funds in transferring Gitmo prisoners. And as the union representing Illinois prison staff points out, state prisons are woefully overcrowded. The Center could help solve a grievous problem without dipping its toes into the Gitmo debate. But we're talking about (max) 150 people -- and an issue that (we seem to have forgotten) needs resolution.
We've tried 'terrorists' before -- including Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph. Non-Americans have faced the judge as well -- Ramzi Yousef remains in Colorado, and the Blind Sheikh is locked up in North Carolina. By multiple accounts, the influence of the latter has suffered considerably due to his removal from society. This year, Abu Hamza al-Masri was tried right in New York City. Extradited after assuaging European concerns of possible inhumane treatment, he was found guilty and will be sentenced in September. The sky did not fall.
Federal prisons, like Guantanamo, operate under executive control. But unlike Gitmo, the process that puts them there isn't. Until now, most have faced tribunals, which have been redesigned several times -- including after our own Supreme Court found them to violate both military code and the Geneva Conventions. Eight years ago this month, the Court released a sweeping decision concerning bin Laden's former driver, which reminded all that we have a constitution and a fine set of rules already in place -- so at least some of them should be followed.
We're never going convince terrorists that kidnapped US troops have no value, nor do we want to (sorry Rep. Rogers). Valuing one of our guys for five of theirs is noticed. Valuing the rule of law could be, too. The Geneva Conventions allow for war-time prisoners to remain in custody if they faced criminal proceedings. Putting faith in Palau and Qatar sounds appealing to some, but let's put some faith in our own system. The longer we wait, the harder it will become.