Start bringing terrorists to Gitmo again

Monday, February 21, 2011

CIA Director Leon Panetta set off an uproar when he told the Senate intelligence committee last week that if Osama bin Laden or other senior al-Qaeda leaders were ever captured, the Obama administration would likely send them to Guantanamo Bay.

While Panetta's comments may have upset some, he was simply acknowledging the obvious: Guantanamo is not going anywhere. Two years after the president pledged to close the facility, it remains open - and as Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it last week, the prospects of closing Guantanamo anytime soon are "very, very low." So why not put it to better use?

In fact, Obama administration is quietly beginning to ramp up operations at Guantanamo. While White House officials continue to assert that the president is committed to closing the facility, their actions speak otherwise. President Obama barely put up a fight when the outgoing Democratic Congress passed legislation barring the transfer of any detainees from Guantanamo to the United States. Then in January, the administration put out word that Obama would soon lift the ban he had imposed two years ago on new military commission trials - allowing military prosecutors to finally begin bringing new cases against terrorists held at Guantanamo. With military commissions resuming, it makes sense for the administration to go all in, take Panetta's advice and resume bringing high-value terrorists to Guantanamo for interrogation as well.

Of course, to do that they would need to begin capturing al-Qaeda leaders again. But the sad fact is that, outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been no reported high-value detentions by the United States in the 25 months since Obama took office - one of the longest periods without a top al-Qaeda capture since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

This has not been some stretch of bad luck. The president appears to have chosen to stop trying to bring senior terrorist leaders in alive, while escalating targeted killings instead. In 2009, for example, the U.S. military tracked down Saleh Ali Nabhan, the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa, and it wanted bring him in for interrogation. Obama overruled the military and ordered Nabhan killed instead. Such decisions to kill, rather than capture, terrorist leaders are being made all the time - costing us vital intelligence about al-Qaeda's operations and plans for new attacks. Why would we give up the opportunity to interrogate a senior al-Qaeda leader? Because, as one senior military officer told The Post last year, we "don't have a detention policy or a set of facilities" where captured terrorists can be taken.

Now Leon Panetta has solved that problem for us: We can take captured terrorist to Guantanamo again. There is no good reason for the president not to follow Panetta's advice. Guantanamo is a model detention center, fully compliant with both U.S. and international law. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Gitmo soon after taking office and gave it his gold-star seal of approval. The CIA already has a presence at the base and a state-of-the-art facility for housing high-value detainees such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed. This facility could easily accommodate fresh captures ready for quick exploitation.

The only reason not to bring terrorists to Guantanamo is to maintain the fiction that the administration is closing the facility. But the fact is that we have nowhere else to take captured senior terrorist leaders. The administration's reluctance to use Guantanamo has left our terrorist detention and interrogation policy in a dangerous state of limbo - and is putting America at greater risk of terrorist attack. As former CIA director Mike Hayden recently put it, "When you take lawful intelligence tools off the table, given the nature of this war, that is the equivalent of disarmament."

Does it seem far-fetched that Obama would resume bringing captured terrorists to Guantanamo for interrogations? Perhaps. But recall that when Obama first took office, it also seemed far-fetched that two years later Guantanamo would remain open, the administration would be affirming its right to indefinitely hold captured terrorists, and Obama would be ordering new military commission trials on the island. The president has reversed course on each of these matters. And now his CIA director has testified that if a high-value terrorist came into our possession he would probably be sent to Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps Panetta was speaking out of school. Or perhaps he simply said publicly what administration officials have been discussing privately. Stranger things have happened.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book "Courting Disaster" and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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