THE BLOG
03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Black Eye Won't Heal If Gitmo Stays

I recently led the first congressional delegation in half a year to visit our detention facilities at the Naval Air Station in Guantanamo Bay -- located on the eastern tip of Cuba, on acres we have rented for $4,000 a year since 1903. The joke is that in the 50 years since the Cuban revolution, the Communist Party has refused to cash our checks (except for twice, by mistake). President Raul Castro enjoys showing visitors a whole drawer full of them.

But the prison is no joke. It was initially constructed out of chicken wire to warehouse, beyond the reach of U.S. law, hundreds of so-called enemy combatants drawn from the post-Sept. 11 battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere -- with no lawyers, no habeas corpus challenges, no limits on interrogations, no application of Geneva Conventions or access by the International Red Cross. And those cages in which prisoners were kept allowed plenty of opportunity for senior Al Qaeda leadership to radicalize detainees who might not already have been converted to the cause.

In the intervening eight years, both the prison and its "limbo" status are totally changed -- except for the black eye the U.S. has sustained, which will not heal as long as the prison remains open. Cable channels continue to roll pictures of the original Gitmo, and millions around the world and in our country know it as a place where we wanted no rules to apply.

Now, all is different. Gitmo contains state-of-the-art, air-conditioned facilities that hold almost 200 remaining detainees, including approximately 15 high-value targets accused of committing the most heinous crimes of this young, bloody century. All prisoners have habeas corpus rights, are assisted by legal teams and receive regular visits by the Red Cross. While I, like many of my colleagues, oppose transferring any Gitmo detainees to countries where Al Qaeda is currently active, I do support the reported transfer of two detainees to Spain and perhaps to other allies.

So why not keep Gitmo open and send the latest suspected terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, there? Those making this argument overlook the fact that doing so would not evade the reach of U.S. law, save any money or remove the indelible stain that Gitmo has caused. Regardless of whether Abdulmutallab faces trial by federal court or by military tribunal, he still has a right to counsel and an ability to challenge his incarceration, and any interrogations are limited to procedures spelled out in the Army Field Manual. I think it is highly unlikely that Abdulmutallab's father would have contacted U.S. officials about his son if he had thought he was going to be tortured.

Nor do I agree with those who call for Abdulmutallab to be tried in a military tribunal. Since WWII, everyone arrested on U.S. soil for terrorism-related crimes (as Abdulmutallab was) has been tried in federal court. There were dozens of witnesses to his alleged crime, evidence was found on his body, and there is no likelihood he has been tortured (even sending him temporarily to a military brig would not evade the restrictions on enhanced interrogations), so his conviction and life sentence are virtually certain.

Does anyone doubt that Abdulmutallab is securely incarcerated in federal prison outside Detroit? According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists -- including Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Relocating and holding detainees at a penitentiary in Thomson, Ill., would cost half as much as it does to house prisoners at Gitmo, and Illinois officials have, on a bipartisan basis, welcomed the move. That facility would also provide a place to house others arrested for terrorism-related crimes.

Closing the prison at Guantanamo would send a clear message that we Americans live our values, primary among them that we adhere to the rule of law. The argument for "disappearing" people outside our legal system has been soundly repudiated. To assert that roughing up people is the way to gain useful intelligence is disingenuous at best -- even Sen. John McCain has said that torture doesn't work. The reality that he will spend the rest of his life in prison must be sinking in for Abdulmutallab, perhaps providing the necessary incentive to offer information in exchange for better conditions of confinement.

It is not surprising that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is rumored to want to stay at Gitmo. He knows the environment at the correctional facility in Lower Manhattan is much tougher. And it's 85 degrees at Gitmo this week.

Now in her eighth term, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

This piece originally appeared in Politico.