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GORDON: Guantanamo here to stay? Jun 01, 2010
The Washington Times

The Washington Times Online Edition

GORDON: Guantanamo here to stay?

By J.D. Gordon

The Obama administration's top-priority plan to shutter the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, suffered another major setback in Congress last month as the House Armed Services Committee approved by a unanimous 59-0 vote legislation that would prevent creation of a replacement prison in the United States.

Just over a year ago, on May 21, 2009, President Obama proclaimed in his signature speech on national security at the National Archives (which was followed immediately by former Vice President Dick Cheney's rebuttal in televised remarks at the American Enterprise Institute), "Even as we clean up the mess up at Guantanamo, we will constantly re-evaluate our approach, subject our decisions to review from other branches of government, as well as to the public."

Ironically, the "mess" at Guantanamo that Mr. Obama cited was caused to a great extent by the damaging, yet disingenuous, characterizations continuously repeated by those who supported him on the campaign trail. Wildly exaggerated claims of detainee abuse, factual misrepresentations regarding conditions of confinement and interrogations (for instance, waterboarding was never used there) and false portrayals of most detainees as innocent goat herders sold for bounties helped create such an internationally controversial symbol.

As Mr. Cheney recounted in his American Enterprise Institute speech, the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 was an extraordinarily challenging time in which the George W. Bush administration made tough choices from the bunker that kept the country safe from a repeat attack on American soil.

Some of those tough choices proved difficult to sustain over the years. Such was the case of sending al Qaeda- and Taliban-linked detainees to Guantanamo and holding them under the international-law-of-war context similar to prisoners of war - though technically without the same rights, as they were unlawful enemy combatants, along with a lack of meaningful transparency that undermined public accountability.

However, the reality of Guantanamo, which a visiting European parliamentarian delegation dubbed "a model prison," starkly contrasts with its harsh reputation.

Amnesty International and other activists labeled it the "gulag of our times" and detractors cynically branded our use of it as one of the darkest chapters in history. A factual comparison of Guantanamo - where about 780 terror suspects were detained, 600 have been released and 181 remain - with the Soviet penal system - in which about 14 million people were sentenced to hard labor, resulting in at least a million deaths - demonstrates the absurdity of such claims.

However, words matter, especially when they are repeated, over and over, and delivered through an effective propaganda campaign like the one waged against Guantanamo.

Viewing the prompt closure of Guantanamo as an important political and diplomatic priority, Mr. Obama made it his first order of business once in office.

Within hours of his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, with a quick phone call to the Defense Department, the president personally halted military commission pre-trial hearings, which were in progress that week at Guantanamo for the five Sept. 11 co-defendants. Incredibly, this move completely ignored the fact that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the purported mastermind of the attack and ringleader of the five, was in the midst of discussions with the military judge about entering a guilty plea.

Just 48 hours later, the president issued an executive order for the closure of Guantanamo detention facilities within one year and another executive order banning the use of CIA coercive interrogation techniques.

While those steps arguably enhanced the president's personal popularity overseas - he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just nine months later - the rash decision to announce Guantanamo's expeditious closure with such great fanfare and without a plan has proved severely detrimental to his administration.

Once it eventually became apparent that a replacement prison at Thomson, Ill. would simply continue the practice of indefinite detention without trials, conservatives and liberals alike were firmly in agreement that it would merely constitute a "Gitmo North."

The increase of terrorists, both homegrown and overseas, influenced by radical Islamic clerics citing wide-ranging complaints - from offensive cartoons drawn in Europe to Western cultural influences in the Middle East to the presence of U.S. troops in Muslim countries and U.S. support for Israel - underscores legitimate public concern with transferring detainees into what would become a symbolic and accessible target in the country's heartland.

Now that Mr. Obama has owned the "mess" of Guantanamo for the past 16 months and some of its formerly harshest critics are in his administration, the propaganda machine against Guantanamo has largely shut down.

Perhaps the administration may be coming to the realization that as long as al Qaeda continues its war against the United States, Guantanamo just might be here to stay.

J. D. Gordon, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, is a retired Navy commander who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.

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