Guantanamo Stay

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Guantanamo Bay / DoD photo

Saturday marked the second birthday of a just-inaugurated President Obama’s executive order that the prison at Guantanamo be shut down within 12 months:

The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order. If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantánamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.

Oops. Despite the festering wound Gitmo became – and remains – for U.S. foreign policy, Obama’s order was hardly that. Carol Rosenberg, the Miami Herald‘s ace Gitmo correspondent, reports Congress is largely to blame for the stalemate that keeps 173 alleged terrorists at the Cuban facility. Lawmakers’ refusal to permit housing any of the detainees on U.S. soil led other nations to say “no thanks” when Washington asked them to take some of their own.

There is something profoundly dispiriting about viewing such purported jihadists as so powerful and menacing that our elected representatives cower at the notion of housing them within our country. You get a sense when you listen to them that they fear some Allahu Akbar lightning bolt will strike any fortress holding them, knocking down the walls and freeing them to kill innocent Americans living nearby if they fail to convert. We thought we exaggerated the Soviet threat.

Of course, there’s another reason for keeping Gitmo open: the deficit, Washington’s excuse du jour.

Our nation has invested millions of dollars in building state-of-the-art humane and safe facilities to detain and prosecute the terrorist detainees at Guantanamo. It would be fiscally and morally irresponsible to shutter the facility at this time and invest in new facilities in the United States at a time when our nation is tightening its belt.

That’s Rep. Buck McKeon, the California Republican and incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, speaking last week. Bottom line: if Obama were unable to shutter Gitmo when he had Democrats running both houses of Congress, he sure isn’t going to be able to do it now that the GOP is in charge of the House.

The U.S. military officials running Guantanamo told a bipartisan congressional delegation that visited last Monday that prisoner attacks on guards there dropped from more than 600 in 2009 to 109 last year. While it’s no tropical paradise, GOP lawmakers said it isn’t the hellhole that many paint it. “Despite some of the earlier and changing popular perceptions about Guantanamo Bay, there is a great emphasis from top to bottom about decency, about treating human beings down there in a manner consistent with international norms, the rule of law and our own laws,” Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., said following the one-day visit. His colleagues agreed. “They have a library where they have access to several thousand books,” Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., noted. “They get to watch TV.” The chairman was impressed. “The last thing we saw was a group of detainees out in the field playing soccer,” McKeon said. “They seem to be enjoying themselves very well.”

McKeon doesn’t buy the notion that keeping Gitmo open is an especially valuable propaganda prize that al Qaeda and its allies can use against the U.S. “If it’s not Guantanamo, could be Illinois,” he says, referring to a languishing proposal to move Gitmo inmates to the land of Lincoln. “Wherever, they can find a way to, they think, make us look bad, they will do it.” (Could be a chapter straight out of today’s hyper-polarized Washington, D.C., playbook.)

In fact, McKeon added, given the long war on terror, it may be time to consider adding to the Gitmo population. “If we have detainees in other parts of the world that we can’t seem to decide what to do with, that would be a place for them,” he said. “We could handle up to 800 there.”