The endless debate over Gitmo — the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp — has been an epic of misinformation, hypocrisy, and incompetence. Gitmo has undeservedly achieved a status in American and international perceptions as an infamous place of torture and a symbol of injustice.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Congress mandated application of “all necessary and appropriate force” against those responsible for the attacks. In the successful invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. special forces in 2001, to support the Taliban’s opponents and destroy the terrorist sanctuaries where the 9/11 attacks had been conceived, 70,000 suspects were taken prisoner and carefully evaluated. All but 800 were released. The 800 were well-authenticated suspects, but fantastic tales circulated of the wrongful detention of innocent shepherds.
Guantanamo was settled upon as a place to detain, but not durably imprison, these people because it was a secure military facility, but not in the United States — and thus not subject to all the rules of the U.S. justice system. Non-uniformed assailants of civilians, unsponsored by any country, do not qualify for the Geneva Convention protections of prisoners of war. Justice Department official John Yoo was asked to prepare legal guidelines for the treatment of these detainees, and the famous Gitmo memos resulted. The domestic liberal media and foreign anti-American commentators claimed that these memos were confessions and descriptions of torture — but they actually reveal Yoo’s constant recognition that, given the stakes involved, interrogations had to be as efficient as possible, without reaching the level of torture as defined by U.S. statutory law. The Gitmo detainees had to be separated from one another, not out of cruelty, but to avoid coordination of stories.
FBI interrogators proved to be ineffectual and Defense Department Islamic specialists took over. A new protocol was put in place in 2002, permitting prolonged interrogation, cold temperatures, a flow of water onto the heads of suspects, acts of humiliation such as shaving off facial hair and festooning detainees with dog leashes and articles of women’s clothing. Waterboarding and other more severe techniques were only intermittently permitted, and actually employed only in the cases of three detainees.
These techniques yielded valuable intelligence that undoubtedly saved American lives and averted further terrorist outrages, including a 9/11-like attack on Los Angeles. They also stirred the resentment of the FBI, whose internal memos about Gitmo were misused to present Defense Department interrogations as routinely barbarous.
In fact, Gitmo is a very comfortable facility. Recreation and religious areas are extensive, and the diet is excellent, if fattening (at 4,000 calories a day). The International Red Cross has a facility on-site, and tours are conducted through Gitmo for interested parties, including congressional delegations. There have been twelve separate inquiries into Gitmo that have all debunked the extreme allegations, i.e., that the Koran has been desecrated, that detainees are threatened by dangerous dogs, and that they are soaked in alleged menstrual blood.
None of this happened, but when the revelation of genuine, though not widespread, abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq came to light in 2004, the Left was able to tar the whole U.S. antiterrorist effort with the brush of terror. The Bush administration was inexplicably inept at responding when Sen. Edward Kennedy said it had reopened “Saddam’s torture chambers”; when Sen. Dick Durbin compared Gitmo to the Nazi camps, the Soviet Gulag, and even Pol Pot’s killing fields; and when the egregious poseur George Soros, the billionaire bleeding-heart speculator, called George W. Bush “the biggest terrorist in the world.”
The legal opposition to Gitmo and its activities was led by Michael Ratner, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights — a group founded by William Kunstler, counsel for the Black Panthers, the organizers of the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and many other extreme and violent groups. Kunstler is best remembered for his endless vitriolic harangues to the media from the steps of many of America’s courthouses, with sunglasses fixed to the top of his head like solar panels. Ratner has acted for Fidel Castro and Hamas in the U.S.
Amnesty International began referring to the “American Gulag”; the Supreme Court made a decision that — as applied by lower courts — would cause the release of many Gitmo detainees. Sen. John McCain, a much-tortured former POW, said he would shut Gitmo.
On his first full day as president, Barack Obama announced he was closing Gitmo and suspending (for four months) the military commissions that had been cautiously adjudicating terrorist cases. There are now only 240 detainees left in Gitmo, and the Defense Department’s antiterrorist center estimates that as many as 60 of those released have returned to anti-American terrorist activity, including a man graciously fitted with an artificial leg at Gitmo before being released and allegedly participating in blowing up the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in 2006.
To make the absurdity fully bipartisan, Republicans have started a tremendous chorus about the administration’s moving terrorists “to a location near you.” (No one escapes from a U.S. maximum-security prison.)
The president, even as he made his dramatic, crowd-pleasing opening move on Gitmo and the commissions, revealed that the facility will not be closed for at least a year; he subsequently announced that the military commissions will resume. He then made a very sophistical speech about how he had not really changed his mind, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was trying, unsuccessfully, to represent that she had been misinformed about Gitmo by the CIA. Attorney General Eric Holder has confirmed that Gitmo is an exemplary facility, and he and the president, along with the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, have effectively confirmed that the whole controversy has been a fraud.
All the legislators and legal activists who have whipped up concern about Gitmo would do better to focus on the facts that the U.S. has far more incarcerated people per capita than any other country in the world, and that it has far more severe sentences than any other advanced country. As Sen. Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, has written, there is plenty to occupy the concerns of prison-reform activists without their needing to go farther than a few miles from their homes.
– Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.