The Obama Administration announced today that it will move one hundred Guantanamo Bay detainees to a prison in rural Illinois. This move is considered a step forward in Obama’s campaign promise to shutdown the Gitmo facility. By doing so, however, Obama is skipping a critical step in this process—the creation of a long-term detainment framework that will keep Americans safe and hold terrorists accountable.
The benefits of the Guantanamo Bay facility arguably outweigh the costs in terms of price, security, and location. While undoubtedly the Bureau of Prisons could handle the security risks associated with these detainees, FBI Director Robert Mueller has emphasized that moving these detainees to the U.S. undoubtedly brings security risks. It is, however, within the President’s prerogative as Commander-in-Chief to make a decision as to where to prosecute these national security detainees. Obama’s preference was expressed during his presidential campaign when he promised that he would close down the Gitmo facility and put place in substantial oversight aimed at remedying what he perceived as Bush era abuses.
Today marks a step in this process. However, this decision puts the cart before the horse, leaving out a significant step in a responsible transition out of Guantanamo Bay. First, there are a number of legal authorities that specifically prohibit putting these detainees on U.S. soil. Second, and most importantly, this decision skips over the development of a framework for dealing with future detainees in the long run. Simply moving terrorists out of Gitmo and inside the United States does not end the issues associated with detainment. For instance, once inside the United States, what rights will be afforded to detainees, what authorities will be in place to ensure their prolonged detainment, what will happen if they are ordered release, and what if these individuals are not apprehended on the battlefield of Afghanistan?
These are all concerns that are currently left unanswered under the present framework. As Heritage Foundation’s Cully Stimson phrased it, “closing Guantanamo or merely moving the detainees to the United States without addressing the serious underlying challenges and questions regarding detention policy in this ongoing conflict is essentially changing the zip code without confronting the broader challenges.” And if history is guide, absent guidance from the legislative or executive branch, inaction by Obama essentially punts these issues to the judiciary, where activist judges could degrade this valuable national security tool.
What Obama should have done first is get specific congressional authorization for a prolonged detention—this is in line with his promise to make America’s image stronger in the world. However, moving forward on closing Gitmo without a legal and workable detention policy in place weakens U.S. detention policy, and puts the courts in the driving seat of America’s national security.