No Good Reason To Close Gitmo

Report Homeland Security

No Good Reason To Close Gitmo

June 14, 2005 8 min read

Authors: James Phillips , Alane Kochems, Jack Spencer and Ariel Cohen

While billions are victim to the regular abuse and tyranny of governments such as those of Sudan and China, much of the world's media and non-profit "human rights" resources focus on the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Not a single person has been killed at the facility since it opened, and yet the drumbeat of criticism grows by the day. Criticism and even calls to close the base have come not just from President Bush's critics, but also from members of his own party. But a rhetorical barrage is no reason to shut a base. Those who would close the detainment center have failed to articulate a reasonable rationale for doing so. They also overlook a major challenge: there are few options, right now, to replace the detainment center. There are, however, many reasons to keep it open.


1. The function of Guantanamo Bay will be served somewhere. Closing Guantanamo will not relieve the United States from needing a facility to house and interrogate suspected terrorists. Should Guantanamo close, the government would have to relocate these functions. If there are problems with the detainment center, those problems should be transparently addressed. The Pentagon has taken great pains to ensure that all appropriate domestic and international agencies have adequate access to the facilities and has been responsive to credible allegations of abuse. Unlike in the tyrannical or regimes of North Korea or China, for example, alleged abuses of prisoners are investigated and those found guilty are held responsible. Moreover, there are established avenues by which Congress, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and the media exercise differing degrees of oversight in Guantanamo. Changing locations now would lead to a transition period during which these organizations would have less access than they do today.


2. Closing Guantanamo Bay to placate critics is unjustified. It would be naive for the United States to assume that the same unsubstantiated criticisms that now surround the Guantanamo Bay facility would not be transported to the next one. The facility itself and what happens at it do not drive its critics, exactly; rather, their activism is motivated by how the United States and its allies are conducting the war on terrorism in general. Critics of the war do not distinguish between the two. To appease the critics would require changing how the United States fights the war on terrorism, which is unacceptable. American policymakers should be aware that conceding on Guantanamo, given the broad context of critics' complaints, would be tantamount to conceding the war on terrorism itself.


For instance, on a recent television interview a representative of a "human rights" organization manipulated statistics and rhetoric taken from the broader campaign against terrorism to describe the actions and facility at Guantanamo Bay.[1] At one point in the interview, he argued that at least 28 individuals have died in U.S. custody as a result of criminal homicide. None of these deaths, however, occurred at Guantanamo. The implication was that whether these actions took place at Guantanamo was irrelevant and that actions and events occurring at any point or place in the war on terrorism may be generalized to any specific place or event.


But the details do matter. According to the Department of Defense, "The department works closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and representatives visit detainees in our charge at their discretion. There have been 187 members of Congress and congressional staff who have visited Guantanamo to include (sic) 11 Senators, 77 Representatives and 99 Congressional staff members. There have also been some 400 media visits consisting of more than 1,000 national and international journalists."[2] Even skeptics must admit that it would be hard to carry out any systematic abuse of detainees under such intense and constant scrutiny.


3. Releasing the detainees now is not a realistic option. While holding detainees indefinitely is not likely, releasing them now is not a realistic option. Many detainees released from Guantanamo Bay returned to their home countries only to resume terrorist attacks against civilians. According to The Washington Post, at least 10 of the 202 detainees released from Guantanamo were later captured or killed while fighting U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[3] Mark Jacobson, a former special assistant for detainee policy at the Department of Defense, estimated that as many as 25 of the 202 had taken up arms again.


For example, Mullah Shahzada, a former Taliban field commander who apparently convinced officials at Guantanamo that he had sworn off violence, was freed in 2003, and immediately rejoined the Taliban. He was subsequently killed in battle in the summer of 2004 in Afghanistan. Maulvi Ghafar, a Taliban commander captured in 2001, was released in February 2004. He was subsequently killed in a shootout with Afghan government forces in September 2004. Abdullah Mesud, a Pakistani who was captured fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, bragged that he was able to hide his true identity for two years at Guantanamo before being released in March 2004. He was considered a low-risk security threat because of his artificial leg. After returning to Pakistan, Mesud led a group of Islamic militants-part of a campaign against the Pakistani government-that kidnapped two Chinese engineers working on a dam. One of the engineers and several militants were subsequently killed in a government raid.[4] Mesud is still at large.


Clearly, the detainees kept at Guantanamo pose a significant threat to Americans, U.S. allies, and civilians in their home countries. This threat must be weighed long and hard before any decision is made to release an individual detainee or to change the system under which detainees are held.


4. Changing the physical location of the detainees is not legally significant. Neither the detainees nor the United States stand to gain significantly in the legal arena if the detention center at Guantanamo Bay is closed. The "illegal enemy combatants" held at the facility have access to U.S. courts (as held by the Supreme Court in Rasul v. Bush[5]). Detainees have been making much use of their access to legal counsel, as evidenced, for example, by a November 2004 District Court opinion holding that the Bush Administration had overstepped its authority in several areas.


Moving the detainees within the continental United States will not give them additional rights because Guantanamo Bay is already considered sufficiently under U.S. control to provide rights to them.[6] After the Rasul opinion, the detainees and the U.S. government will have the same legal advantages and disadvantages within the U.S. as they do at Guantanamo Bay. There are no compelling legal reasons to move the detainees and close Guantanamo Bay.


5. Guantanamo Bay is no Gulag. Blinded by hatred of America and U.S. policies and seeking to shift the blame away from terrorist crimes, Amnesty International's Secretary-General Irene Zubeida Khan recently called Guantanamo Bay detention camp the "Gulag of our times." She added, according to some reports, "Ironic that this should happen as we mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz."It is not clear whether this was a statement of deep ignorance or deliberate deception. Ms. Khan, though, is not alone in her criticism. Amnesty's Washington director, William Schulz, has said that Guantanamo's terrorist detention facility  is "similar at least in character, if not in size, to what happened in the Gulag."


Comparing Guantanamo's tropical Caribbean detention facility with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's frozen concentration camp empire makes about as much sense as calling the London police "Nazis." Amnesty's gall in abusing the dead and trivializing their suffering for its own political purposes is appalling. Gulag (from "Main Directorate of Camps" in Russian) began as an extermination machine for political opponents. It quickly became a meat-grinder in which tens of millions of innocent Soviets and citizens of other countries perished. Islamists may manipulate some anti-American elements in the human rights community whom they consider, to borrow Lenin's phrase, "useful idiots." This strategy has been surprisingly successful, perhaps due to the political inclinations of those who lead the major human rights groups in the U.S. today. For whatever reason, Amnesty and Ms. Khan are ignoring real threats to human rights, especially those of women in the Islamic world, and are playing into the hands of terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying the West. The human rights community's bizarre priorities are no reason, however, to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.



The debate over whether or not to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is about much more then that facility itself. It is a debate over how the United States and its allies are conducting the war on terrorism. If the United States concedes that its actions in Guantanamo Bay are such that they warrant closing the facility, how can the U.S. defend keeping other facilities open? And if the United States cannot house and interrogate suspected terrorists, how can it prosecute the Global War on Terrorism? The issue of whether the Gitmo detention facility should be closed should not be used as a proxy referendum for the Bush Administration's war on terrorism.

Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security, Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow, Jim Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, and Alane Kochems is a Research Assistant, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Remarks by Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, on Fox News Sunday, "Transcript: Gitmo Debate on FNS, June 12, 2005, at,2933,159296,00.html.

[2] U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), "Guantanamo Provides Valuable Intelligence Information," June 12, 2005, at

[3] John Mintz, "Released Detainees Rejoining the Fight," The Washington Post, October 22, 2004, p. A1.

[4] Tim McGirk, "Out of Captivity," Time Asia Magazine, October 18, 2004, at

[5] Rasul v. Bush, 540 U.S. 1175 (2004).

[6]See Cuban American Bar Ass'n, Inc. v. Christopher, 43 F.3d 1412 (11th Cir. 1995).


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Alane Kochems

Former Policy Analyst, National Security

Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom

Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Director, CENRG and Senior Fellow, IAGS