By Scott Horton, from Harper's Magazine, 1.12.12
On January 11, 2002, the first prisoners from the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” were landed at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, a forty-five-square-mile enclave at the eastern end of Cuba that America secured in a 1903 treaty and has held ever since. Today marks the tenth anniversary of U.S. detention operations there. In the intervening years, the prison population swelled, with a total of 779 prisoners having been held there at some point. Some 600 were released (mostly by the Bush Administration), and of the 171 still held there, a majority have actually been cleared for release. These eighty-nine men are something of a political ping-pong ball between Republicans, who continue to do everything in their power to keep Gitmo open and to block the prisoners’ release, and the Obama White House, which seems intent on keeping questions surrounding Gitmo out of the headlines. Obama pledged during his campaign to close Gitmo within his first year as president, but this pledge has gone unfulfilled—in part because he was slow to act, but largely as a result of congressional obstruction.
Most of the discussion about Gitmo continues to focus on prisoner abuse, though it is clear that conditions for prisoners improved somewhat during the Bush Administration’s final two years, and that under the Obama Administration, the physical condition of the facilities and the day-to-day treatment of prisoners have prompted a decrease in questions from human rights advocates.
What lessons can be drawn from the American experiment at Guantánamo? Two have consistently garnered less media attention than they merit. The first is that, ten years out, the United States still has not tried any Gitmo detainees as high-profile leaders of the 9/11 plot. Five of the prisoners have been charged, and the evidence assembled against some of them seems impressive. But the failure of the United States to act quickly against the instigators of 9/11 by charging them with crimes, presenting clear and persuasive evidence of their involvement, and convicting them is an inexcusable one, shared by the Bush and Obama administrations. Plenty of excuses have been offered, including the need to extract intelligence from prisoners, the need to conduct thorough investigations, the complications created by the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” on key witnesses, and legal issues surrounding military commissions. Most of these problems are of the government’s own making, and none of them adequately explains the shameful loss of time in bringing justice to the victims and the country as a whole. Gitmo will forever be associated with the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.
The second underreported lesson of Gitmo relates to the poisonous effect of partisan politics. No one expected matters as deeply felt as 9/11 to remain entirely outside of partisan politics, but the idea of Gitmo was cast soon after the attack, amid a political campaign. Republicans made it an issue in the midterm elections of 2002, marketing it as a “robust” or “proactive” approach to defending the nation against terrorists. The message worked marvelously, scoring enormous gains for the G.O.P.
Unknown to most Americans, though, just before the fall vote, representatives of the CIA and FBI went to the White House to break the bad news: Gitmo had been filled not with dangerous Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but with a bunch of nobodies. Political considerations plainly dictated the response. The government would not review the prisoners’ cases or grant releases, we were told; instead, “the president has determined that they are all enemy combatants.” Not only did this approach deny facts later borne out in case reviews and habeas petitions, it aggressively demonized the Gitmo population in order to create a sort of political insurance policy.
The Bush Administration’s shameful response continues to distort the domestic political dialogue about Guantánamo, which amounts to an extended effort to avoid accountability for a series of stupid political mistakes. In the end, it has been effective domestic politics. But it has cost America enormously on the global stage, diminishing the country’s influence and degrading its moral image to an unprecedented degree. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo was fundamentally wise, and why Obama should be reminded of that pledge and pressed to bring it to fruition.