“Some people have said, we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo.” — Mitt Romney, Republican presidential debate, May 15, 2007
Take a breath, Mitt. Whatever you may think, your bravado statements about doubling the size of Guantanamo — part of your bid to lead the American people faster and farther into the Global War on Terror — are by no means completely off-the-wall. True, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Gates have both stated that closing Guantanamo might be the best way out of the legal limbo we’ve been in ever since that facility opened five and half years ago as the crown jewel of the administration’s offshore network of secret prisons. But forget what they say. Check out what they’re doing. The closing of Guantanamo — and a winding down of the administration’s detention and interrogation policies — may be farther away than most of us think. As elsewhere in this administration’s record, casual talk of refashioning a failed policy masks an inflexible commitment to “staying the course.”
Bear with me a moment, Mitt, and let’s consider the alleged signs of impending closure that evidently worry you greatly. As a start, out of a total of 759 detainees acknowledged to have been at Guantanamo at one time or another, more than half have been released to their home countries or to a third country. According to the Department of Defense, “approximately 340” detainees remain, 120 of whom are deemed no longer a threat and will assumedly be released once Condoleezza Rice’s State Department can find homes for them. Approximately a dozen detainees are now let out every month.
In addition — and this must set your pulse racing, Mitt — Senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill to close Guantanamo, co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Christopher Dodd, Hillary Clinton, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Ted Kennedy. It’s also clear that some members of the Bush administration are actually searching for a Gitmo end-game, possibly by accelerating the disastrous military commissions process that, after all this time, has only managed to start court proceedings against one detainee. Finally, an American prison constructed outside of Kabul, Afghanistan — Pul-i-Charki — is currently being expanded as a possible alternative facility to which at least some of the Guantanamo detainees could be transferred as part of a “closing” process that didn’t quite close anything.
Even these signs, however, seem to be more smokescreen than reality. Consider this, Mitt: During the last six months — and for the first time since December 2004 — several new detainees have been transferred to Guantanamo. I’m not referring to the arrival in September 2006 of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and the 13 other “high value detainees,” but to more ordinary transfers. In this case, in order of transfer: Abdul Malik, Abduullahi Sudi Arale, Abd Al Hadi al Iraqi (the only one of the five categorized as a “high value detainee”), Haroon al Afghani, and Inayatullah.
Note as well that two of these individuals are Afghanis, which has to make you wonder a little about those Department of Defense plans for Pul-i-Charki. So, too, ongoing construction remains a constant feature of Guantanamo, as has been true since December 2001. At the moment, $10-$12 million is being invested in the building of a “legal tent city” for the military commissions that have floated on the horizon since January 2002. Elsewhere on the base, another $17 million dollars are being put into building a facility with a capacity for 10,000 detainees — in the eventuality of a Caribbean migrant crisis (but, if not that, the capacity will still be there). Meanwhile, the bill to close Guantanamo has stalled in Congress and, in July 2007, the Senate voted overwhelmingly (94-3) against transferring any prisoners from Guantanamo to prisons or holding facilities in the United States.
And, Mitt, here’s the good news for you: These signs of survival, even expansion, at Guantanamo are indicative of a larger trend in U.S. detention policy — towards ratcheting up the nation’s detention effort globally. Not a scaling down process in sight! The populations of American prisons in Iraq, for instance, are increasing at a rate of 60 prisoners per day. In the “surge” months, between February and August 2007, according to the New York Times, the number of detainees in Iraq, especially in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq and Camp Cropper near Baghdad, grew from 16,000 to 24,500 and that figure is evidently still on the rise, while facilities at both camps continue to be expanded.
A similar process seems to be underway in Afghanistan. The population at Pul-i-Charki (only one of the prisons Americans control in that country) continues to rise. According to International Committee of the Red Cross figures, it held at least 2,000 detainees in 2006 and was evidently growing. As an answer to Guantanamo, this way lies irony. After all, the idea of Guantanamo initially grew, in part, out of the problems involved in keeping detainees in Afghanistan — unbearably harsh weather, poor medical facilities, danger from the surrounding violence, and a wasteful diversion of U.S. troops. So putting the whole enterprise back where it started would likely be a disaster, not to mention an admission of just how wasteful and misguided the process has been from 2002 to today.
Meanwhile, Mitt — just in case you’re still fretting — lighten up. It’s not just the total population of “war on terror” detainees that’s on the rise, so are administration justifications for, and defenses of, detention policy. Initially, our prisons in Afghanistan and the facility at Guantanamo were created to keep dangerous enemies off the battlefield and to garner tactical information that could help U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Within the first six months of Guantanamo’s existence, however, as detainee tactical information became stale, that rationale morphed into the need to extract strategic information — about the make-up and nature of al-Qaeda’s network, about jihad, about Osama Bin Laden, and so on. This latter justification only grew in importance as the years in detention passed. With each prisoner transfer, in fact, the Pentagon now announces that “the detainees being held at Guantanamo have provided information essential to our ability to better understand how Al Qaeda operates and thus to prevent future attacks.” As a recent commanding officer at Guantanamo explained earlier in 2007, “We are getting good and useful and interesting intelligence — even after five years.” In September 2006, President Bush detailed the ways in which information from the CIA’s secret detention program had proven valuable and administration spokespersons have continued to insist that, indeed, much information has come from those in custody. But there is little proof of this.
Perhaps evidence of the general uselessness of most detainees to intelligence operatives, a new reason for detention has appeared. As Major General Douglas Stone, in charge of all detainees in Iraq, explained to CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week, “Now we’re fighting the battle in the battlefield of the brain.” He went on to assert that U.S. detention centers globally provide an ideal opportunity not for intelligence gathering but for counterinsurgency. “This is where the idea of al Qaeda will be beaten,” Stone insisted.
It is certainly a tacit admission of one reality — that such prisons regularly cause the radicalization of detainees and their recruitment by international jihadi terrorist groups. So, the Bush administration now acknowledges incarceration as another of its many battlefields in the Global War on Terror and is conducting its own campaigns of reeducation. At Camp Cropper in Iraq, for instance, where more than 800 of the 4,000 detainees are juveniles, civics classes and teachings that involve moderate, non-violent readings of the Koran, along with more traditional school classes, are underway at a prison school that is grandiloquently called “the House of Wisdom.”
Whatever the rationale for detention — be it tactical intelligence, the need for the ready presence of a human library of information on terrorism, or the reeducation of extremists — the fact remains that Guantanamo and allied U.S. detention facilities are all a long way from entering a wind-down phase. Detainee populations are on the rise as are new detention sites, new construction expenditures, and new guard training.
The only thing not on the rise is a serious policy discussion about all this. Six years after 9/11, isn’t it time to face the fact that, as a nation, we have not yet asked ourselves: What should our detention policy be? What are the rules and regulations we might want to create to confront the threat posed by terrorists? As a nation, we have chosen to bemoan the policies that have emerged without legislative backing and popular vetting — or, like you, Mitt, to call for more of the same. But even Gallup polling of American opinion on detention and torture fails to ask: Do you think that incarcerating suspected terrorists for indefinite periods without trials or convictions is acceptable? A country essentially without leadership, we have wasted five and half years avoiding asking what exactly is a policy on detention that the United States should live with — as opposed to just living with the ad hoc one we have.
So, Mitt, relax. Guantanamo (and everything it represents) is alive and well. The administration’s loose talk of change only conceals its stubborn commitment to a wholly discredited path. Guantanamo, a prison in no way ready to close, is at the heart of a conversation that almost no one seems willing to open.
Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University and the editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (with Joshua Dratel), The Torture Debate in America, and Al Qaeda Now: Understanding Today’s Terrorists.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]