The Bush Administration Wanted to Close GTMO Because (in Part) of its Propaganda Value to Jihadists

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, February 5, 2015, 8:31 PM

Senator Tom Cotton, whom I like, doesn’t support the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center.  As the SASC hearing today he said of the Guantanamo detainees, “every last one of them can rot in hell, but since they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”   Senator Cotton served in the U.S. Army for five years and is entitled to his opinion.  But I think he is wrong when he questions the Obama administration’s claims about the “propaganda value that terrorists get from Guantanamo Bay.”  I also think he is wrong when he says that the Obama administration’s claims about GTMO’s propaganda value are “a pretext to justify a political decision.”

This is now a common Republican sound bite.  But I did not hear any Republicans making this argument when the second-term Bush administration made the identical claims as part of its efforts to close GTMO.  As President Bush said in his memoir:  “While I believe opening Guantanamo after 9/11 was necessary, the detention facility had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.  I worked to find a way to close the prison without compromising security.”  And as President Bush’s Legal Advisor in the State Department, John Bellinger, said in 2010, GTMO “has come to symbolize abuse of Muslim prisoners and serves as a powerful recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.”  Other Republicans thought and said similar things before 2009.

Of course to say that GTMO is a propaganda tool is not to say how weighty a tool it is, or that attacks against Americans and American interests would lessen materially were GTMO to close.  Senator Cotton doubts anything would change if GTMO closed.   I cannot assess this claim, and perhaps Senator Cotton has access to intelligence to support his doubts.  My point is only that it is probably wrong to say that Obama administration’s claims about GTMO’s propaganda value are pretextual, since President Obama’s predecessor said exactly the same thing on exactly the same issue, presumably based on similar intelligence.