Thoughts on Obama's Gitmo Remarks

By Benjamin Wittes
Friday, December 24, 2010, 9:39 AM

A few thoughts on President Obama's remarks Wednesday on Guantanamo, the full text of which I posted earlier.

"Obviously, we haven’t gotten it closed.  And let me just step back and explain that the reason for wanting to close Guantanamo was because my number one priority is keeping the American people safe.  One of the most powerful tools we have to keep the American people safe is not providing al Qaeda and jihadists recruiting tools for fledgling terrorists. And Guantanamo is probably the number one recruitment tool that is used by these jihadist organizations."

The more I think about this claim, the less I believe it is true. I claim no expertise on Al Qaeda recruiting--or, indeed, on Al Qaeda itself. And clearly, the President has access to a huge range of intelligence which I don't see. But I just have never seen any evidence that Guantanamo plays a particular role in Al Qaeda recruiting--an important role relative to other complaints about the United States or a role different from that which any facility that might replace it would play. I know the claim that Gitmo creates more terrorists than it holds is a common argument for closing the facility, but I have never seen a serious piece of reporting of any kind that purports to support it. Sure, there are mentions of Guantanamo in Al Qaeda propaganda, and there are mentions of detainees (who would presumably be held somewhere else were Gitmo closed), but where is the evidence that Guantanamo is playing some outsized role in Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts--let alone in its actual recruitment?

"But it is important for us, even as we’re going aggressively after the bad guys, to make sure that we’re also living up to our values and our ideals and our principles.  And that’s what closing Guantanamo is about--not because I think that the people who are running Guantanamo are doing a bad job, but rather because it’s become a symbol.  And I think we can do just as good of a job housing them somewhere else."

I have no objection to closing Guantanamo, but Obama should be careful about talking this way if he's not actually going to manage to close it. And let's be clear: if he's not willing to veto congressional transfer restrictions, he's not going to close the facility. Obama here is saying, or at least implying, that Gitmo is contrary to our values, ideals, and principles. If he is going to continue defending detentions there and not going to fight tooth and nail to close it, such talk only undermines a project to which he is in practice committed. It is tantamount to announcing that he is acquiescing to violating our values, ideals, and principles. As Donald Rumsfeld might have said, you detain the enemy with the facilities you have, not the facilities you wish you had. And you delegitimize those facilities at your own risk. At some point, if Obama is not going to do what is necessary to get Guantanamo closed, he's got to own not merely the failure--about which he has been candid--but the facility itself.

"One of the toughest problems is what to do with people that we know are dangerous, that we know are--have engaged in terrorist activity, are proclaimed enemies of the United States, but because of the manner in which they were originally captured, the circumstances right after 9/11 in which they are interrogated, it becomes difficult to try them whether in an Article III court or in a military commission. Releasing them at this stage could potentially create greater danger for the American people."

The President has taken some heat from the left for these words--specifically for his admission that some people might not be prosecutable because of the circumstances of their interrogations and detentions but that they should be detainable anyway. I applaud him for saying this directly. I think the number of detainees who would have been prosecutable but for their interrogations but are not as a consequence of them is smaller than many people imagine. But it is clearly not zero, and Obama is absolutely right to state publicly that where someone is (a) dangerous, and (b) lawfully detained, the fact that he may have been mistreated in a fashion that precludes his prosecution does not convey release. Obama is also right to state clearly that the issue of long-term detention is one of the hardest legal policy issues in contemporary counterterrorism. My only gripe with this statement is that he is not reiterating this point often.