May 30, 2009 | Wall Street Journal
Why It’s So Hard to Close Gitmo
President Barack Obama is retaining many important Bush administration antiterror policies, including the detention without trial of jihadist captives as well as military commissions. He is determined, however, to close the Guantanamo detention facility because he believes doing so will not cause many problems in the U.S., and will improve our image abroad and bolster international support for U.S. antiterror policies. He will be disappointed on all counts.
Guantanamo has always been a symbol, rather than the substance, of complaints against America's “war on terror.” It's the military character of the U.S. response to 9/11 that foreign and domestic critics won't accept.
There are also longstanding ideological currents at work here. At least since the 1970s, “progressive” international activists have sought to level the playing field between nation states (especially the U.S. and Israel) and nonstate actors such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas. Although international humanitarian law is supposed to apply neutrally to all belligerents, international opinion now gives nonstate actors far more leeway to ignore fundamental norms such as the rule against deliberately targeting civilians. The underlying implication is that terrorist tactics, however regrettable, are justified as the only means of achieving laudable goals like national liberation.
This mindset will not change if Guantanamo closes. At the same time, closing the detention facilities will create numerous headaches quite beyond the security issues raised by dangerous detainees who might escape or serve as a magnet for terrorist attacks in U.S.-based facilities.
One immediate problem, identified by FBI Director Robert Mueller, is the very real possibility that the Guantanamo detainees will recruit more terrorists from among the federal inmate population and continue al Qaeda operations from the inside. Radical Islamists already preach jihad in prisons — this was how the just-arrested New York synagogue bombers were recruited — and criminal gangs have proved that a half-in/half-out management model works.
A longer-term problem is that once Guantanamo is closed the option of holding captured enemy combatants any place overseas will be undermined. Over time, more and more such individuals, including the ones convicted by military commissions, would have to be brought to the U.S., especially as Europe backs away from taking such individuals. Aggregating the world's worst jihadists on American soil, from which they can never be repatriated, is not a smart way to fight a war.
Meanwhile, the legality of incarcerating captured terrorists in U.S. domestic prisons is far from clear. Today the Guantanamo detainees are held under well-established laws of war permitting belligerents to confine captured enemies until hostilities are over. This detention, without the due process accorded criminal defendants, has always been legally justified because it emphatically is not penal in nature but a simple expedient necessary to keep captives from returning to the fight. It was on this basis that the Supreme Court approved the detention of war-on-terror captives, without trial, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004).
The Guantanamo detainees are “unlawful” enemy combatants and not “prisoners of war” under the Geneva Conventions. Yet they are still combatants, not convicts. By contrast, the individuals held in the federal prison system, and especially those in the maximum security facilities suggested for the Guantanamo detainees, are convicted criminals.
It is very doubtful that under the customary laws and customs of war, the Hamdi decision, or Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (which the Supreme Court also has applied to the war on terror) the Guantanamo detainees can be treated like convicted criminals and consigned without trial to the genuinely fearsome world of a super-max prison.
Segregating the detainees from the overall prison population — to maintain the “non-penal” character of their confinement as well as to frustrate any recruiting activities or continuing al Qaeda operations — is also legally dubious. Unless a new Guantanamo is to be constructed, this segregation will have to take place in existing isolation wards used to discipline (and sometimes protect) federal inmates.
This could mean solitary confinement, perhaps for 23 hours a day, without regard to a detainee's conduct or disciplinary status. The chances that courts would consider this to be the “humane” treatment required by the Geneva conventions are not overwhelming.
The Obama administration can be certain these conditions will be challenged in the courts, and it is difficult to see how, in light of current judicial attitudes, the detainees will be denied the entire panoply of constitutional rights claimed by ordinary inmates — including lawsuits challenging their conditions of confinement. If courts conclude that these conditions are unconstitutional, or that they cannot be held indefinitely as enemy combatants, judges could mandate the release of these jihadists into the U.S.
Mr. Obama can still reverse his decision to close Guantanamo. This would cost him significant political support among his base. But making unpopular decisions to serve the national interest is a president's duty and obligation. In this regard, Mr. Obama should follow his predecessor's example and put American national security before the vagaries of popular approval.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey worked in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and have served as expert members of the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.