There Are No Good Alternatives to Guantanamo

A detainee peers out from a cell at the Guantanamo Bay prison in November.
A detainee peers out from a cell at the Guantanamo Bay prison in November. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
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By Mitch McConnell
Sunday, March 15, 2009

As administration officials huddled privately last week, thinking of ways to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, many of us hoped that they would think again. President Obama's decision to shut down Guantanamo may have cheered critics of the Bush administration, but the alternatives under consideration show how elusive a satisfying resolution to this issue has become -- and how dangerous closing Guantanamo could be.

Attorney General Eric Holder captured the dilemma after a recent trip to Guantanamo when he offered a glowing report on the facility, said the prisoners were being treated well -- and then reiterated the administration's intent to close it within the year. Holder was less expansive on what the administration plans to do with the detainees after Guantanamo is closed. The reason for his silence: No acceptable alternatives exist.

It's not for lack of trying. Ever since the United States began using Guantanamo as a detention facility after the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, government officials and legal scholars have puzzled over what to do with enemy combatants who don't fall into the traditional categories of war. No one denies that the United States is legally entitled to capture and hold enemy fighters and prevent them from returning to battle. But their release and repatriation have proved to be vexing questions, and over time the answers have become both more difficult and more critical.

According to Pentagon reports, detainees who have been released from Guantanamo appear to be reengaging in terrorism at higher rates, with the current rate of those either suspected or confirmed of reengaging in terrorism at about 12 percent. There's a reason for this: Among the roughly 250 inmates who remain at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst, including dozens of proud and self-proclaimed members of al-Qaeda. Many have been directly involved in some of the worst terrorist attacks in history, including some who had direct knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. Others have trained or funded terrorists, made bombs or presented themselves as potential suicide bombers. As the pool of inmates has shrunk, those who remain are simply more dangerous, not less.

These people are among the least likely to be controlled if and when they return home. More than a third of the detainees who have already been released were from Saudi Arabia, which has its own detention and rehabilitation system. But our confidence in that system has been shaken by recent reports that at least one former Saudi detainee has returned to fighting. More worrisome is the prospect of releasing Yemeni detainees, about half the remaining population at Guantanamo, since Yemen has shown little ability to control even the most dangerous terrorists we release.

Some have proposed solving this problem by sending detainees to the United States. The most obvious flaw in this plan is that no one can say where. Two of the likeliest spots, the ADX "SuperMax" facility in Florence, Colo., and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, are in states that are home to a member of the Cabinet, former Colorado senator Ken Salazar, and an incoming member of the Cabinet, Kansas's Kathleen Sebelius. Both are opposed to using the facilities in their states. When the question of sending detainees to U.S. soil was put to the Senate, the vote against was 94 to 3. It's hard to find anyone anywhere who wants his or her state to house the next Guantanamo.

The Obama administration has had to take on a number of thorny issues, but few will be as difficult as Guantanamo. Still, some things about Guantanamo are well worth recalling as the administration moves forward. First, not a single detainee has ever escaped to maim or kill innocents. Guantanamo Bay is, above all else, secure and safely distant from civilian populations.

Second, detainees are well cared for. They receive three meals a day. They are free to worship five times daily and provided with prayer beads, rugs and copies of the Koran in their native languages. They send and receive mail. The prison library offers more than 12,000 items in 19 languages (a favorite DVD, according to the librarian, is "Deadliest Catch" and a favorite book is the Arabic translation of "Harry Potter"). Medical care is said to be excellent. It is hard to imagine these men being treated nearly as well anywhere else in the world. Indeed, one European official who visited in 2006 called Guantanamo "a model" prison and better than the ones in Belgium. On my visit, the first detainee I came across was riding a stationary bicycle. This is not Abu Ghraib.

While some have raised the concern that holding enemy combatants at Guantanamo damages our prestige, any plan to transfer or release them must meet a simple test: Will it keep Americans as safe as Guantanamo has? If the answer is no, the administration must explain why fulfilling a campaign promise or pleasing European critics is a more important consideration. President Obama was right and courageous to rethink an artificial deadline on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. As we approach another artificial deadline, it's my hope that he has another change of heart.

The writer is Senate Republican leader.

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