Is Closing Gitmo Symbolic?

So I was watching FOXNews in Burger King the other day (Yeah. Let that sink in for a bit.) and they were debating closing Guantanamo Bay. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but something they said made me wonder: at this point, is closing Guantanamo Bay a largely symbolic act?

If Obama has his way (and really, regardless of what a lot of senators are saying right now, this is the most feasible way to close Gitmo), some of those terror suspects still deemed dangerous would be held in American supermax prisons. This, of course, scares people, but there’s no reason to think that they wouldn’t be plenty secure. In fact, our supermax prisons already hold a number of convicted terrorists, most notably Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was implicated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in addition to some other pretty nasty stuff.

Setting aside popular resistance to harboring terror suspects in American prisons, let’s say Obama’s plan was put in motion. What would happen?

  • We’d have terror suspects currently at Guantanamo moved into the U.S.
  • Some would be subject to what Obama is calling “prolonged detention” without trial.
  • Most would be tried by either military tribunal or the U.S. civilian court system and subsequently sentenced.
  • Enhanced interrogation techniques would be disallowed.

I’ll set aside the constitutionality of Obama’s “prolonged detention” for now, because he’s said he wants there to be Congress and court oversight. Whether that will appease the Supreme Court remains to be seen — it frowned on Bush policies in Guantanamo in a 2006 decision. But in that decision, the Court said that Bush couldn’t order military tribunals that weren’t authorized by Congress. Obama, presumably, would be off the hook on that front, but “prolonged detention” without trial is, of course, a whole other issue.

But don’t the above bullet points look an awful lot like Gitmo relocated? That’s the complaint of quite a few human rights groups, but for the sake of argument let’s say Obama meets most human rights demands, the military tribunals are up to snuff, and “prolonged detention” is thrown out of the playbook entirely. Presumably, that’s best case scenario if you’re the Obama administration.

Is there anything above described that couldn’t be done at Guantanamo Bay?

Because if not, closing Guantanamo is largely a symbolic gesture, meant to appease human rights activists at home and abroad, and improve America’s image in Europe, et al.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d probably lean toward closing Guantanamo, in a perfect world. But given the difficulty in closing it — Congress’ resistance to use American prisons not least among them — there’s a lot to be said for using the facility with different ground rules.

Left uniterated in the Guantanamo debate is that we’ve poured a ton of money into this thing.

At the end of 2007, the New York Times priced the facility’s creation at $54 million, and its annual operation at around $100 million. The annual operating costs could of course be either deferred to prop up the supermax facilities or cut from the budget entirely for some pretty nice savings, but it would still be a pretty inefficient use of cash at a time when government waste can be ill-afforded.

Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more politically viable than bringing terror suspects into one’s district, however irrational the fears thereof might be.


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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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