The New York Times recently ran a story revealing that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice favor the closing of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. My friend David Rivkin has now co-authored an article with Lee Casey in the Wall Street Journal arguing in favor of keeping terrorist suspects locked up in Gitmo. My heart is with Rivkin and Casey, but my head tells me that Gates and Rice are probably right at this juncture.
On the merits, Rivkin and Casey have, to coin a term, a slam-dunk case. Terrorists captured on the battlefield can’t be treated with the niceties of normal criminal law. Even if there isn’t sufficient evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt,” some terrorists are so dangerous that they need to be locked up anyway. And Gitmo is as good a place as any to keep them confined. It’s on a U.S. naval base but beyond the jurisdiction of domestic criminal law, and the facilities there are now as nice as any in a domestic prison.
I completely understand why the Bush administration decided to go down this route. Unfortunately, unfair as it is, the President’s decision to confine terrorism suspects at Gitmo has turned into an international debacle. Al Qaeda members have skillfully played on the sympathies of foreign audiences by claiming all sorts of abuse. Even if the claims are false—as most surely are—they have been widely believed. Gitmo has been demonized, especially in Europe and the Middle East, as some kind of American Gulag. The allegations are absurd but they have become the received wisdom abroad—in part because the administration has done such a poor job of defending its detention policies.
The public relations damage is so severe and continuing that I’m afraid it probably warrants closing Gitmo. Of course that doesn’t mean the detainees should be released to return to a reign of terror. Ship them to other detention facilities in the U.S. or abroad—for instance the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., where dirty-bomb suspect Jose Padilla was held. Rivkin and Casey are right that some “human-rights advocates” will never be satisfied until all terrorist suspects are granted trials either in domestic courts or, better still, in the International Criminal Court. It is worthwhile exploring whether laws and procedures can be created to make this a viable prospect; it is very much in our interest to have an international tribunal that can imprison international terrorists, taking the onus off us. In the meantime, simply closing Gitmo will have tremendous symbolic value and will allow us to win a valuable victory in the court of international opinion. That, in turn, will make it easier to win the kind of cooperation abroad we need to successfully prosecute the struggle against jihadist extremism.