Thomas Jocelyn provides an excellent analysis of the effort pledged by Barack Obama to close the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Obama has reiterated his promise to shutter Gitmo since the election, but he may find that more difficult than he thinks. More importantly, Obama hasn’t offered much of a vision as to how he’ll handle future high-value detainees:
The new administration will soon discover from its review of the Guantánamo files what motivated its predecessor: The scope of the terrorist threat was far greater than anyone knew on September 11, 2001. But for the Bush administration’s efforts, many more Americans surely would have perished.
This conclusion is based on a careful review of the thousands of pages of documents released from Guantánamo, as well as other publicly available evidence. In 2006, the Department of Defense began to release the documents to the public via its website. The files had been created during the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) and Administrative Review Board (ARB) hearings held for nearly 600 detainees. This unclassified cache includes both the government’s allegations against each detainee and summarized transcripts of the detainees’ testimony. Although the documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Associated Press, the intelligence contained in the files was largely ignored by the mainstream press for more than two years. Thus, the New York Times reported only the day before the recent presidential election that the files contain “sobering intelligence claims against many of the remaining detainees.” …
The most dangerous men currently incarcerated at Guantánamo are the 14 “high value” detainees. The Bush administration gave them this designation because they are uniquely lethal, having planned and participated in the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. Their collective dossier includes, among other attacks, 9/11, the American embassy bombings (August 7, 1998), the USS Cole bombing (October 12, 2000), and the Bali bombings (October 12, 2002). They are responsible for murdering thousands of civilians around the globe, from the eastern United States to Southeast Asia. Had they not been captured, they surely would have murdered thousands more.
The 14 were originally held not at Guantánamo, but at even more controversial black sites. And the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have sparked international outrage were principally designed for them. One may doubt the necessity and morality of these techniques, including waterboarding, while still recognizing a fundamentally important point: The 14 high value detainees are not ordinary criminals, but perpetrators of an entirely different order of evil.
It is because of these men, in particular, that the Bush administration initiated the preventive detention regime of which Guantánamo is a part. Processing them as mere lawbreakers would not have advanced the war on terror. To read them their rights and provide them lawyers would have been to throw away their intelligence value. It would have allowed them to carry to the grave many details of still active terrorist plots. The Bush administration chose a different route-harsh interrogations designed to ferret out al Qaeda’s current operations before it was too late to stop them or capture those involved.
Obama wants a return to the pre-9/11 process of simply arresting and trying terrorists in federal courts. That did nothing to end the threat against the US, as a series of attacks abroad proved long before 9/11. On the other hand, as Joscelyn reports, the aggressive, war-modeled approach used by the Bush administration led to the unraveling of many plots, some almost ready to launch. Los Angeles had been targeted in a follow-up mission by al-Qaeda after 9/11, and the Bush administration’s interrogations uncovered the plot and the plotters, ending the threat.
The trial of the WTC I plotters after the 1993 terrorist attack did not prevent WTC II on 9/11. This is what was meant by the September 10th mentality. Treating terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh the same as armed robbers not only ignores their real threat but also keeps the government from gaining the kind of intelligence against their networks that keeps Americans from being killed by the thousands.
The current high-value detainees probably have little intel value now, and their handling matters less than how we treat those who follow them. If we go back to the pre-9/11 approach and process them through the civil courts, we’ll pad our conviction rates and remain blind to the threats amassing against us. Obama may close Gitmo, but in the end, he’ll need to create another mechanism to do what Gitmo did for national security or wind up dropping the ball against the real threats we still face.