Close down Gitmo? Why, sure
Whenever this president can't answer a direct question about some failure of American security, or at least can't answer it satisfactorily, he goes into his riff about the need to ... close the brig at Guantanamo.
There's a reason that an offshore military prison was set up where it was: to confine terrorists and those suspected of being such someplace where they could be safely questioned at length under military law. Rather than transfer them to the mainland and treat them as ordinary criminal suspects with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. And take all the risks such a move would involve. Including the possibility, indeed probability, that, once read his rights Ã la Miranda, the prisoner will clam up and American intelligence will be denied valuable information. The kind of information that might prevent the next terrorist attack.
Our president, now confronted by tough questions about terrorist attacks from Benghazi to Boston and why they weren't foiled, would rather talk about the need to ... close the brig at Guantanamo.
Its existence offends him. As it has for years. Maybe because American military law in general does; he doesn't seem to recognize it as law at all but some kind of inferior substitute to be evaded whenever possible. Even if the U.S. code of military justice predates the U.S. Constitution, has a rich history of its own, and, when a new kind of barbaric war is unleashed, has its indispensable uses. Uses that civil law may not, especially in these times and these circumstances.
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The first military tribunals in this country were set up by George Washington, who was commander of the continental army even before there was a republic called the United States of America. As a charming British gentleman, major and, alas, spymaster named John AndrÃ© discovered when he was caught out of uniform -- with an American passport, false identity and detailed plans of West Point, all supplied courtesy of the ever obliging Benedict Arnold. The traitor got away, but his handler didn't.
The major was tried and sentenced to death by a high-ranking board of senior American officers, a courtesy the British hadn't bothered to extend to a young patriot named Nathan Hale. Major AndrÃ© was promptly hanged -- duly, legally and justifiably. We were after all at war. And, perhaps more relevant to these current times and this current war, we realized it. And acted on that realization. To quote Alexander Hamilton: "Never perhaps did any man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less."
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None of this law or history, or just prudence and experience, is evident whenever our current chief executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces lectures the rest of us about the need to close down a military prison now holding scores of dangers to the United States and to civilization itself.
At those moments, the Hon. Barack Obama brings to mind any glib young professor lecturing a class of first-year law students so smoothly and earnestly he seems unaware that he's complicating his case more than explaining it.
Close Gitmo? Fine. Nobody ever argued that it was the ideal solution to the tricky problem of how to handle combatants, legal or illegal, in this war on terror, only the best available now. And maybe indefinitely. Our president doesn't seem to like that phrase, either -- war on terror. It comes too close to calling something by its right name instead of Overseas Contingency Operations, whatever that means, if anything.
Everybody regrets Gitmo's existence, or at least the necessity for it. Yes, the law of war holds that combatants legal and illegal may be held till hostilities are concluded. But, our president complains, our we don't know when that could be. It could be forever!
Right, sir. And we didn't know when we could safely release all those German and Italian prisoners once held in places like Arkansas either, but we knew enough to try a bunch of German saboteurs caught on American soil before a military court and execute just about every last one of them. With dispatch. And justice. Now we seem to have a president whose jurisprudence is full of juris but absent prudence. Close Gitmo? Sure thing, Mr. President. And then do what, if anything?
Transfer all these military trials to lower Manhattan, turn it into an armed fortress, and try all these nice people now at that Cuban resort as though they were just pickpockets or purse-snatchers? Just ask Mayor Bloomberg how that bright idea turned out, or rather didn't turn out, after New Yorkers and the rest of the country got wind of it.
Close Gitmo and just duplicate it somewhere else, maybe in the upper Midwest Ã la Fargo? Just Not In My Back Yard? But it's holding these prisoners that's the essence of this debate, not where they're held. They object to being imprisoned, not to the Cuban climate.
Close Gitmo and then what? Take the prisoners we want to squeeze for information and hold them aboard a U.S. Navy ship for a couple of months while they're grilled? This president has tried that, too. And he didn't seem to like it. Understandably.
What about just sending the recalcitrant types back home and letting their countries of origin figure out how to deal with them? But be sure to call it repatriation because we've already called it rendition, and that euphemism didn't fool anybody for long -- because no one could deny that it made the United States of America a silent partner in their torture abroad. So the president withdrew his support for it. (Good for him.)
Is there any clear alternative to Gitmo that this president does recommend? He says he'll tell us later. No rush. He's had only four years or so to find one. With any luck, he'll be talking about closing it down it for another four years -- but only talking about it.
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Take a look at this president's rambling remarks at his press conference last week and see if you can figure out what he was recommending as an alternative to the prison at Guantanamo. Because it beats me.
To quote a tactful summation offered by one of the wire services: "He was ambiguous, however, about the most difficult issue raised by the prospect of closing the prison: What to do with detainees who are deemed dangerous but could not be feasibly prosecuted?" Despite the president's wordy dissertation on that subject, he doesn't seem to have the faintest idea.
The first requirement of justice, as it is the last, whether civil or military justice, is moral clarity. For all his verbal meandering at that presidential press conference, he steered clear of it. Moral clarity is hard work. Delivering a moralistic lecture is a lot easier; there's no heavy intellectual lifting involved.
Here was a chance for our president to ride one of his favorite hobbyhorses without actually saying anything, and even please some of his more fervid supporters on the left, who know they want Gitmo shut down but, after that, draw a blank. Much as this president does. But that never keeps him from running on about the subject, which is a lot easier than talking about the latest misadventures -- and worse -- of the vast national-security apparatus he is nominally in charge of.
Many of us look forward to hearing more from our president on the subject of Guantanamo -- so long as the cell doors there remain safely locked, bolted and barred while he prates on.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)