Spencer Ackerman recently took a trip down to Guantanamo Bay, and returned with a long piece for the New Republic on why the detention facility ought to be shut down: “Guantanamo is more than just an image problem: it is a moral, legal, and strategic one as well.” We’ve dealt with the moral and legal arguments pretty much ad nauseum here at MoJo, so I’ll highlight some of his arguments for the strategic problem with Guantanamo. First, the US probably isn’t receiving much in the way of solid intelligence from the facility:
Despite the mantra that Guantánamo houses “the worst of the worst,” Qatani, the thwarted hijacker, is the highest-ranking Al Qaeda detainee acknowledged to be at Camp Delta. Senior Al Qaeda captives–such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11, or terrorist-recruiting chief Abu Zubaydah–are held at undisclosed locations across the U.S. detention apparatus. What’s left are largely what one former White House counterterrorism official dubs “the ash-and-trash jihadi picked up in Afghanistan,” as opposed to the “honest-to-God, cardcarrying members of Al Qaeda–operatives who are worth a shit.” Many detainees picked up in Afghanistan in the first year after September 11, 2001, and taken to Guantánamo were initially captured by Northern Alliance fighters looking to settle scores and collect rewards .
What those 130 or so inmates have to offer, however, is still questionable. Most of Guantánamo’s population has been in the camp for its entire three-and-a-half-year existence, and, according to Kaniut, only about ten detainees have arrived in the past year. “Obviously,” says a recently retired senior intelligence official with counterterrorism experience, “the longer he’s there, the less he has to tell you in terms of fresh actionable stuff. After a certain time, it becomes historic research data.” That’s not to say that information can’t be useful. As the former White House official explains, the detainees might still be able to reveal “how do people interact, how do they communicate, what ethnic group will work with another ethnic group, where are the fault lines within the organization … pieces of the jihadi and Sunni extremism jigsaw puzzle.”
But, as the former official cautions, even those pieces lose their worth after awhile. And that’s because the jigsaw puzzle is changing. Simply put, Al Qaeda in 2005–as both a terrorist network and a broader jihadist movement–looks very little like Al Qaeda in 2002. Most Guantánamo detainees were captured on the Afghan battlefield. Yet Al Qaeda’s center of gravity is increasingly moving out of Afghanistan and Central Asia: In a series of classified reports this year, the CIA has warned that the next wave of the global jihadist movement lies with new recruits who travel to Iraq to gain on-the-job training killing U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians before returning to their homes in the Middle East, North Africa, and, increasingly, Europe–to say nothing of those who, as is likely with some of the culprits of last month’s thwarted London attacks, taught themselves terrorism in the relative isolation of the British midlands. And Pentagon officials have testified to Congress that jihadists captured in Iraq can’t be sent to Guantánamo Bay, because Iraqis must be treated in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Guantánamo’s population, in other words, can tell us next to nothing about this “Class of ’05” problem–the future of Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the “evidence” produced in Guantanamo remains inadmissible in European courts, which in turn undermines Europe’s ability to do any sort of effective law enforcement:
In January, for example, British officials arrested Moazzam Begg, Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga, and Richard Belmar–British nationals who had been recently released after being detained for three years at Guantánamo–immediately after they stepped off a plane at Heathrow Airport. As London’s then-police chief, Sir John Stevens, explained, information American officials had shared with their British counterparts indicated that the men were truly dangerous. “There was no other course of action–we would not have been doing our duty–if we had not arrested them and questioned them,” Stevens said. There was only one problem: No information from Guantánamo Bay was admissible in British court, because it had been obtained under dubious legal circumstances. Despite the palpable worries British authorities had about them, all four walked out of a police station the next day, free men.
The issue is not one of European weakness in fighting terrorism, as conservatives often suggest: Investigating judges like Spain’s Baltasar Garzón and France’s Jean-Louis Bruguière have been relentless in hunting down Al Qaeda affiliates in their countries. Rather, European counterterrorist officials, politicians, and publics simply will not accept the Bush administration’s legal contentions about abusive interrogation and indefinite detention, and they won’t change their judicial systems to accommodate Washington. And, since Al Qaeda’s evolution means that it is European officials who will increasingly have to combat the jihadists, this transatlantic disconnect runs the risk of allowing probable terrorists like the London four to go free.
The thing of it is, Guantanamo isn’t necessary for anything. Congress could just as easily pass a law allowing for, say, a set period of time during which detainees go through interrogation, and then have charges brought against them. As Spencer notes, both Great Britain and Israel have very similar laws, and those countries have been dealing with terrorism for quite some time. That’s the approach any democracy should take towards national security: If the laws on the books don’t do enough to stop whatever threat needs stopping, then make some new laws and take a vote. Instead, however, the White House seems fixated on maintaining its executive authority at all costs, even if it leads to very real moral, legal, and strategic failures.