Gitmo symbolism and substance

David Rivkin and Lee Casey:

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Guantanamo has always been a symbol, rather than the substance, of complaints against America's "war on terror." It's the military character of the U.S. response to 9/11 that foreign and domestic critics won't accept.

There are also longstanding ideological currents at work here. At least since the 1970s, "progressive" international activists have sought to level the playing field between nation states (especially the U.S. and Israel) and nonstate actors such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas. Although international humanitarian law is supposed to apply neutrally to all belligerents, international opinion now gives nonstate actors far more leeway to ignore fundamental norms such as the rule against deliberately targeting civilians. The underlying implication is that terrorist tactics, however regrettable, are justified as the only means of achieving laudable goals like national liberation.

This mindset will not change if Guantanamo closes. At the same time, closing the detention facilities will create numerous headaches quite beyond the security issues raised by dangerous detainees who might escape or serve as a magnet for terrorist attacks in U.S.-based facilities.

One immediate problem, identified by FBI Director Robert Mueller, is the very real possibility that the Guantanamo detainees will recruit more terrorists from among the federal inmate population and continue al Qaeda operations from the inside. Radical Islamists already preach jihad in prisons -- this was how the just-arrested New York synagogue bombers were recruited -- and criminal gangs have proved that a half-in/half-out management model works.

A longer-term problem is that once Guantanamo is closed the option of holding captured enemy combatants any place overseas will be undermined. Over time, more and more such individuals, including the ones convicted by military commissions, would have to be brought to the U.S., especially as Europe backs away from taking such individuals. Aggregating the world's worst jihadists on American soil, from which they can never be repatriated, is not a smart way to fight a war.

Meanwhile, the legality of incarcerating captured terrorists in U.S. domestic prisons is far from clear. Today the Guantanamo detainees are held under well-established laws of war permitting belligerents to confine captured enemies until hostilities are over. This detention, without the due process accorded criminal defendants, has always been legally justified because it emphatically is not penal in nature but a simple expedient necessary to keep captives from returning to the fight. It was on this basis that the Supreme Court approved the detention of war-on-terror captives, without trial, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004).

The Guantanamo detainees are "unlawful" enemy combatants and not "prisoners of war" under the Geneva Conventions. Yet they are still combatants, not convicts. By contrast, the individuals held in the federal prison system, and especially those in the maximum security facilities suggested for the Guantanamo detainees, are convicted criminals.

It is very doubtful that under the customary laws and customs of war, the Hamdi decision, or Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (which the Supreme Court also has applied to the war on terror) the Guantanamo detainees can be treated like convicted criminals and consigned without trial to the genuinely fearsome world of a super-max prison.

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Obama needs to man up and buck his base by keeping Gitmo open. He made a huge mistake in saying he would close it and he is finding out just how difficult it is to do so. Bush was also wrong to want to close it. It is ideal for what it does and it is a good facility where some really bad people are held in very humane conditions. Putting them somewhere else is not going to change their character or the information operations of our enemies. Where ever they are held will be subjected to the same demonization.

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