Since Sept. 11, the biggest disaster of the long war on terrorism has been the Bush administration’s response to concerns about its wartime detention policies. This is particularly true of the way it has handled charges regarding Guantanamo Bay, the detention center for "the worst of the worst" captured in that war.
Amazingly, the administration has managed to make its public-relations disaster even worse.
The latest bombshell fell with a recent Associated Press report that Rear Adm. Mark Buzby, head of military detention operations at Guantanamo, confirmed the existence of a "Camp 7" on base. The hitherto-unknown maximum security facility is home to about a dozen "high-value" detainees.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with maintaining separate facilities for different types of detainees. There could be several good operational reasons to do that.
What are left at Guantanamo are hard-core extremists. They have shown amazing ingenuity, trying to set up clandestine networks to share information and even coordinate attacks on the military guards and stage "suicide" protests. So it’s understandable that the commander there might keep the most troublesome of the lot isolated from the rest.
And there is as yet little reason to worry that detainees in Camp 7 are being ill-treated. All other terrorist-holding facilities at Gitmo are state of the art, with living conditions as good as or better than any federal prison in the United States. Indeed, the medical care for detainees is better than the care typically available to our troops and their families.
Lawyers for the detainees acknowledge they have access to their clients (even those held at Camp 7), as does the Red Cross. Combine these considerations with the fact that the Pentagon spends $2.5 million each year on Korans, prayer rugs and halal meals for Gitmo prisoners, and it’s hard to knock a presumption that — for a prison — the conditions are extraordinarily humane.
The problem with Gitmo is not the "facts on the ground." It’s the stupidity of government information policies.
For years the Pentagon has taken a steady stream of visitors to the detention facilities and shown them everything from the inside of the cells to live interrogations. In doing so, the military asserted it was making Gitmo an open book — that it had nothing to hide.
Except, we now know, Camp 7.
In all those visits, the Pentagon just forgot to mention it had a separate, secret facility. This "oversight" is manna from heaven for Gitmo critics, as it seriously calls into question the government’s credibility.
The deception is inexcusable. There may well be reasons to keep a lot about Camp 7 secret. At-large terrorists have their eyes on Guantanamo, and we don’t need to give them any operationally useful information. But it’s hard to imagine the need to deny the very existence of the facility.
I have made two trips to Guantanamo. I’ve stood as close to detainees as the other side of a chain-link fence. I’ve served as non-governmental observer at one of the military commission proceedings.
Everything I saw made me proud of the military — from how detainees were treated to the incredible skill and determination of the military lawyers representing individuals with the same veracity they would show defending fellow soldiers.
On the other hand, the public-relations officials I met, quite frankly, were uniformly second-tier. Some had scant experience working with the media and non-governmental organizations, yet they were asked to represent the government to world-class journalists and activists on probably the most sensitive national security issue of the decade. It’s hardly a spot for the "B-team." Yet that is habitually what the administration has done.
Making the case for Gitmo should be easy. All Washington has to do is be honest about what it’s doing.
Whether to close the facility is not at the heart of the issue of how the U.S. treats detainees and prosecutes the war on terrorism. Regardless of where detainees are held, the U.S. government has a dual responsibility to uphold the rule of law and to protect the nation.
The detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay seem to be meeting those responsibilities fully.
If only Washington would do a decent job, by telling us everything, the truth would blunt the unending assaults on U.S. detainee policies. Half-truths serve no one well.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).