Tuesday, February 23 marks another important deadline in the struggle between the White House and Congress over closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay.
As mandated by the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the president is required to submit a “comprehensive strategy” for how to detain current and future enemy combatants. In common language he’s got to lay out what’s next after Gitmo.
President Obama spoke forcefully Tuesday morning, declaring that he is “absolutely committed to closing Gitmo.” Anyone who listened to the president cannot doubt his passion for this issue and his commitment.
While Guantanamo got off to a rocky start in 2002, today it’s broadly recognized as one of the world’s best run prisons. I know because I’ve been there dozens of times while a Pentagon spokesman. And it’s kept us safe from another 9/11. Closing it without a better plan to protect Americans is misguided and endangers us all.
After seven years of virtual judo to block Mr. Obama’s signature issue on national security, Congress must stand tough now.
Why? Because transferring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. mainland would be a public safety nightmare.
First, because judges could let the detainees go free. Many of the current detainees are held under indefinite detention status since the United States didn’t have battlefield detectives chasing Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That means we can’t convict them in court. Just like we could not we convict 400,000 Nazi prisoners detained here during World War II. Such a suggestion would have been ridiculous.
Yet due to modern “lawfare”, many Americans have been confused into believing the “try them or release them” defense attorney argument. Under that mentality, activist judges would line up for jurisdiction and it wouldn’t be long before dangerous jihadists walk out of prison.
Don’t believe me? Just Google the name Ali Al-Marri. He went from an Illinois-based Al Qaeda sleeper cell agent trained in poisons, to a detainee held at the Navy’s Charleston Brig, to a free man in Qatar.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other pro-closure colleagues like to cite the high conviction rate of terrorists in U.S. courts. Yet comparing them to Gitmo is misleading because those federal cases have rock-solid evidence trails from the FBI and local police. That’s apples and oranges to most enemy combatants captured overseas during wartime.
Second, sending Gitmo detainees to the U.S. mainland would only change the zip code, while putting local communities in places like Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina at elevated risk for violent protests at best, terrorist attacks at worst. Think of a hybrid blend of Ferguson, Baltimore, Chattanooga and San Bernardino.
The Army’s old School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia provides a hint of what could be in store. For decades, it’s been the site of annual mass protests as far-left activists gather to rage against abuses by former foreign military students in 1980s Central America. At its peak, up to 17,000 people would turn Columbus, Georgia upside down, with hundreds arrested for storming the base.
In addition to fighting off Team Obama from just down Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress also must engage the American people on why Gitmo should remain open for business.
Some Senators and Representatives certainly have done this and they deserve our thanks.
But we need many more to follow their lead. As they’ll tell you, it’s not easy to block an administration that picked the closure of Gitmo as Priority No. 1, since Day One. And this isn’t exactly a White House that’s famous for compromise, to boot.
Congress must continually remind Americans that, according to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), nearly 1 in 3 ex-Gitmo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to terrorism.
And our elected representatives should also help to expose the fuzzy math on actual Gitmo costs. The White House intentionally keeps the per detainee figure high through the excessive number of 2,000 troops who are deployed to Guantanamo for less than 100 detainees. Together with satellite TV, four catered Halal meals a day, Wii-Fits and other amenities available to the detainees, Gitmo costs are the biggest fraud, waste and abuse in modern military history. And yet, how many trillions of dollars did the 9/11 attacks eventually cost?
Members of Congress must also keep challenging the myth that Gitmo is a top propaganda tool for jihadists. Not only do recent think tank studies rate this as false, a simple timeline of history helps too. The 9/11 terror attacks, East Africa Embassy bombings and USS Cole bombing all pre-dated the detainment of enemy combatants at Gitmo.
Ideally, our current commander in chief would take the hint from Congress and just give it a rest. But since that doesn’t appear likely, we need our Senators and Representatives to hang tough. Ladies and gentlemen of the Congress we’re counting on it.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.