Defense & National Security

Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror

It’s important what the rest of the world thinks of the United States.  But it’s more important that we defend ourselves against terrorists who seek our annihilation.  Much of the criticism of our efforts, both international and domestic, is factually wrong and appears to be driven by a partisan hostility to President Bush.

Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base where a $150 million facility has been built to house detainees in the war on terrorism, individuals who might better be described as “people who will kill Americans if given half a chance.”

At the hearing, Democrats criticized the Bush Administration, alleging that the 520 prisoners are in “legal limbo,” that “there is no plan exactly how they’re going to be handled,” that their “rights under the Geneva Conventions have been violated,” and that they deserve some sort of a “trial” or they should be released.  A big problem if true, but none of it is.

The detainees at Guantanamo are not in a legal limbo any more than any other prisoners in any other war were in limbo when they were captured.  International law allows any nation the right to detain enemy combatants for the duration of a conflict.  The primary reason is to prevent them from killing more Americans, and, secondarily, to gather useful intelligence.  That’s why we are holding these men – they are enemy combatants who were shooting at our troops or otherwise involved in terrorism, and many have information that could help prevent further attacks.  We certainly never “tried” captured Nazis or Japanese POWs in World War II (with the exception of a few leaders charged with war crimes) although many were held for years.

The Supreme Court has since ruled that because Guantanamo is under U.S. control, some traditional American legal procedures apply, including the right of each detainee to have his status reviewed.  After that ruling, a special commission was established to determine whether, in fact, all of the detainees were enemy combatants, and a number of them were released.  We know that at least a dozen went right back to fighting us, because they were subsequently captured again on the battlefield.

Those who remain in detention – a tiny fraction of the 10,000 enemy combatants we have picked up over the past few years – are terrorist trainers, bomb makers, extremist recruiters and financers, bodyguards of Osama bin Laden, would-be suicide bombers, and so forth.  Because they indiscriminately target civilians and are not fighting for another particular country, among other reasons, these individuals do not qualify for the protections of the Geneva Conventions.  Nonetheless, official U.S. policy is to apply Geneva standards, including access to lawyers, Red Cross visits, and so forth.  Every single detainee receives a new review every year to determine whether he still poses a risk.  That would seem to be a reasonable standard for a country at war, and surely a credible “plan” for “handling” their cases.

The recent flurry of partisan and international criticism of the handling of Islamic sensibilities at Guantanamo, sparked by a discredited Newsweek report that a copy of the Koran was flushed down a toilet, must have Osama bin Laden rolling with laughter.  None of the critics had previously displayed much concern over the abuse of Muslims by other Muslims, as occurs every day in Iraq.  The reality is that virtually all prisoners are better fed and cared for at Guantanamo than they have ever been in their lives.  They are certainly treated well in comparison to those Westerners taken captive by terrorists in Iraq, who are typically beheaded. 

A handful of politicians have even raised the idea of shutting down Guantanamo, because of its “negative symbolism.”  But as even vociferous critic Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) has conceded, “The question isn’t Guantanamo by itself. Obviously, if we’re holding people, we’re going to hold them somewhere.”

Exactly.  Attacking the United States should bring serious consequences, including imprisonment, if we can catch you.

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