Fearing the supermen of Guantanamo

By Bernd Debusmann
May 28, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Americans need to be afraid, very afraid. If President Barack Obama has his way, the country will soon be at serious risk of terrorist attacks coordinated by Muslim men held in maximum security prisons from where no-one has ever escaped.

These inmates possess superhuman strength and cunning. Even in solitary confinement, they might recruit fellow inmates to the cause of al Qaeda and incite riots. They might succeed where the worst of the worst American criminals failed – break out and disappear, seamlessly blending into the community. Next thing you know — a mushroom cloud.

Such scenarios come to mind when one follows the debate over Obama’s plan to close the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. naval base on the eastern tip of Cuba, and move some of the inmates to prisons in the United States.

This has prompted expressions of dismay both from the political right and from Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress, and the language used in the debate has taken on a surreal quality. Phrases like “releasing dangerous terrorists into our neighborhoods” and “relocating terrorists to American communities” convey the impression that Guantanamo detainees will wander the streets, shopping for sandals and guns.

“To … bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be the cause for great danger and regret in the years to come,” according to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “We have to make sure that streets and neighborhoods don’t think that they’re going to be the repository of Guantanamo prisoners,” warned Barbara Mikulski, a Democratic Senator.

A group of Republican congressmen drafted a “Keep terrorists out of America Act” early in May. America, for the purposes of the act, means American prisons.

It is ironic that politicians in the U.S., which holds more people behind bars than any other country, profess to have so little faith in a system that costs billions to run and includes high-security “supermax” institutions where dangerous inmates spend all but four hours a week in their cell.

If these fears are more than just political theater, are they justified or are they the security equivalent of other mass psychoses, say the irrational belief that house prices would go up forever? “In terms of escaping, U.S. prisons are extremely secure,” says Alan Elsner, a Reuters correspondent and author of Gates of Injustice, a book on the American prison system. “The fears being voiced now are driven entirely by emotion.”


And lack of rational reflection. Not to mention a generous dose of NIMBY (not in my back yard) politics and a bad case of mishandling a delicate issue on the part of Obama, who left it too late to explain where the 240 detainees held in Guantanamo would go once the prison there is closed as planned, by next January.

His fellow Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans in a 90-6 vote to block $80 million in funds to pay for the closure.

Barely noticed in the hubbub: the federal high security prisons in Colorado and Indiana where Guantanamo inmates would probably move already hold convicted terrorists linked to al Qaeda, including Zacarias Moussaoui, found guilty of helping to plot the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon, and Ramzi Yousef, who led the first attack on the World Trade Center.

How many of the detainees still held in Guantanamo qualify for the “worst of the worst” label is anyone’s guess. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the military rounded up 779 suspected “enemy combatants” and shipped them to Guantanamo. More than 500 were released without being charged.

There have been only three prosecutions under a much-criticized military tribunal system authorized by President George W. Bush to try foreign terrorist suspects outside regular civilian or military courts. One defendant pleaded guilty, one was convicted in a contested trial and one after putting up no defense.

Where and when the rest of the detainees will be tried is not clear. What is clear is that Obama will try hard to fulfil his pledge, made on his first day in office, to close Guantanamo, whose existence, he says, “created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

Stalwarts of the Republican party, an organization in deep disarray and looking for an issue that could draw from a bi-partisan well of fear and xenophobia, did not quite see it that way.

“In my view, what is driving this issue is a quest for popularity in Europe, more than continuing policies that have demonstrably made America safe since 9/11,” said Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republican minority in Congress. Cheney echoed that thought in a speech harshly critical of Obama: “The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo.

“But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.”

Ah, yes, it’s all for those Europeans Obama wants to court. Echoes of the days when Bush and Cheney were riding high and French fries turned into Freedom fries.


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Let’s all take a breath here, and get less emotional and more logical. Obama’s plan will likely be a combination of detainee assessment followed by conviction or release – conviction of the hardcore nutjobs, and release of the innocents that are being held at Gitmo. The convicted get life without parole in SuperMax isolation and a free supply of suicide pills. End Of Story. I’d be proud to have them locked up in the SuperMax closest to my house. BushCo created the mother of all black holes in this ridiculous mess called Gitmo, and it will take time for Obama to get us out of it. But Obama has already changed the government’s policy stance on this issue, already announced the eventual closing of Gitmo, already started the process for detainee assessment. This is part of the change he promised, and he is delivering – patience, people, patience. You don’t clean up BushCo messes like this overnight, especially with the hardcore nutjobs on Faux Noise and bloated entertainers like Limbaugh aiding the terrorists in their ratings-grabbing negative commentary on Obama.

Posted by Roc1 | Report as abusive

Exactly, let’s wait I don’t know let’s take a round figure like 4 years for Obama to clean up this mess. Then he can still claim if there’s no resolution or any ongoing crisis that’s it’s still Bush’s fault. Patience people, the messiah needs time. Let’s not hold him up to any standards other than what he says. Action speak loud, unless you are a great speaker who does nothing. Then words and intentions are all that matters. I say we just let him do nothing and keep making these great speeches. Talk is cheap, why demand any action. It’s funny how almost everything that people like is to Obama’s credit, but everything he does ( or fails to do) is Bush’s fault.
Not that I in anyway defend the previous administration, but please folks get over the fact that the man isn’t Bush ( which was his main attribute on the campaign trail)and actually judge him on what he does or fails to do. Saying he’s better than Bush is damning with faint praise.
It’s a sad state of affairs when the man gets credit for signing an order to close Gitmo, with no plan on how to actually do it. He’s now going to continue the military tribunals he argued against, now with “enhanced” due process, what a crock is that like “enhanced” interrogation techniques? He’s also let off the telecoms, continues the war in Iraq … what ever I’ll leave it to the corps of defenders to argue what he’s accomplished. The rest of us are still awaiting our promised change.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

No supermax prison can withstand the stroke of a judge’s pen. Unlike the convicted terrorists that are already held there, these are terrorists that have not been convicted in the American civilian judicial or military judicial systems. One must assume that there will be no judicial appeal to their capitivity without trial for the rest of their natural lives. I’m not willing to bet on that outcome – too many trial lawyers looking to make a name for themselves famously or infamously.

Posted by Cowboy60 | Report as abusive

“what ever I’ll leave it to the corps of defenders to argue what he’s accomplished. The rest of us are still awaiting our promised change.” – frank

First off, you didn’t vote for him so obviously your not interested in the change he would hope to accomplish. But the commentator is right, Obama under-estimated closing Gitmo … and he got caught with a republican right cross.

But once again, the GOP has successfully destroyed any merits in their core beliefs by setting fire to it because it was Obama’s policy and stoking that fire with emotional reactions void of any real facts.

In the midst of economic turmoil, the GOP impishly works to ensure that things goto hell in a hand basket regardless of the cost to America. Thats almost as vile as the ultra-liberals who gleefully watched the body count of the Iraq war as it fueled their oppositional stance to it. It’s all sick and makes me hate the far right as much as i disdain the far left. Now add to this the fact that what i once thought was the far right is turning out to just be the ‘right’ wing.

One of the many things you right-wingers fail to acknowledge is that Bush/Cheney worked pretty hard to receive the animosity they got. I didn’t hate Bush right when he took office and i even rallied around him during 9-11. He had friends. We wanted him to succeed against the Taliban and terrorist. We wanted the bush era to work. Then came Cheney and the neo-cons (not Republicans) and all the abuses of power followed by secrecy.

Obama has been a moderate. Despite all predictions he’s shown that he is not ideological … he’s practical. He’s dissappointed the far left as much as any. He is a great speaker and he is great at getting the best of the best to work on his team regardless of their political affiliation. He’s got more republicans in high ranking positions then any other president. However, he is the iron hand behind the velvet glove … and if you don’t start to come up with some ideas instead of setting fire to ours … he and the rest of us are going to knock your teeth out!

Posted by Juls | Report as abusive

This is fun stuff, Gitmo was the answer and in all likely hood, is going to remain the answer to the question of what to do with foreign terrorist who are picked up on the battle field by our military or by members of our intelligence agencies around the world. The reason why we are detaining these individuals in a prison in Cuba is because we are unable to prosecute them in a US court, because the evidence against them is either less then perfect because it was gathered on a battlefield or was obtained through the possible use of enhanced interrogation, which was legal but now is not so legal due to the current political winds. Also there is no real standard that defines what a terrorist is or what an act of terrorism entail in the law, me and you will both recognize if we saw it on TV but the law is a bit different.
The goal of counter-terrorism is preventative and not reactionary, which is a key difference between it and how our judicial proceedings here at home. A crime is committed, there is a trail of evidence leading back to back to the individual who committed the crime, and thus a case can be brought against said individual, but if you are trying to prevent a terrorist attack you would be doing everyone a great disservice by waiting around for an attack to occur and then go about prosecuting the ones responsible.
Also the argument but out there by the President that Gitmo has recruited more terrorist then it ever detained, is fundamental a misrepresentation of the purpose Gitmo has serves in our War against Terror. Gitmo serves, as a crucial part in our intelligence gathering activities, the prisoners there are Terrorist or Enemy Combatants, and through interrogation we have gained valuable intelligence, which has helped us prevent attack here at home and abroad. Now for a statement of fact, the biggest recruiting tools used by terrorist and their affiliates is not the bad PR the US might generate, it is successful attacks against the US/Allies and its interest. In this understanding, if Gitmo has played a crucial role in preventing these attacks then it has already more than payed for itself in the number of terrorist recruits it has prevented from being recruited by stopping successful attacks from occurring.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Cowboy60 the rule of law and it’s fair application is what separates us from them. It’s why we are the good guys and they are not. The fact that they get a fair trial IS what our troops have fought for since WWII to these modern wars. If a government can declare a person abroad an enemy combatant and hold them indefinitely with no trial … then its not a very far leap to declare a person here at home an enemy of the state and hold them with no trial. The fact we give a fair trial to terrorists makes us morally SUPERIOR to them. I am willing to risk a guilty man gone free is far less troublesome then the rounding up of innocent people.

Posted by Juls | Report as abusive

On cue, the defenders are ready. No i didn’t vote for him, I voted for Ron Paul! I wanted change too, but real change not talk about change. You can blame whoever you want, he said he would close Gitmo, and it’s really not the GOP that’s thrown the wrench in the works. It’s his buddies in Europe who wanted it closed but don’t want to do anything to help. Pretty much what you always get from the EU, they’re always there when they need you! Funny how socialists apparently lost out in the latest elections there while they’ve won here. You can spin nationalizing industries, socialized medicine and tax and spend policies as moderate to fools, smart people know what we’ve got and it ain’t moderate on economics. He hasn’t been as lefty on gitmo or the wars because he knew he couldn’t change the unfortunate momentum, he simply lied on the campaign trail and people eager to be done with Bush and his cronies ate it up. Now they will try to defend him and blame the GOP (who aren’t helping anything). Truth is he knew he couldn’t just close Gitmo, knows he will leave troops in Iraq for probably as long as we have had troops in Korea, but that wouldn’t sell during the elections. I don’t blame him so much for the practicalities he faces, I blame the fools who believed him. Seems the only change we’re going to get is to spread some of my wealth to those who would rather collect government dole than work. I don’t think that’s the change most people wanted, but oh well that’s what you get for believing any politician.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

I always get a kick out of columnists who sit on the beach pontificating about how to solve major issues when none of them; including your president, have so much as run a hot dog stand.Dick Cheney; I know ,the evil white devil conservative, seems to know a thing or two about national defense issues.He recently remarked that the wrong result in a criminal trial held in the U.S. could result in these choir boys being released here.By why confuse the argument of the fascists with the facts. After reading this buffons column this quote seems appropriate. “Complex problems have easy solutions….and there always wrong.”

Posted by dbor21 | Report as abusive

Our Justice Department here in Burnet TX occasionally has some difficulty in holding an inebriated driver overnight, especially if there is a wrongful death involved…I suppose we can always use a few more terrorists cleaning up trash on the highways.

There’s the risk that they’ll be released. That’s a big one. And frankly, I’m slightly less concerned about them wandering the streets with the average person than I am about them being in prisons and converting hardened and violent criminals to their way of thinking. If each terrorist winds up converting several other prisoners (and there is data to support this concern), we could rapidly multiply our problem by locking them up. Is anyone promising they won’t have that opportunity? Not that I’ve heard.

Posted by Pat | Report as abusive

I’m always confused by neocons and their love of Dick Cheney. How could a 5 time Vietnam-war draft dodger be such a military hero to these people?

Also no one seems to know what the word “suspect” means. You guys sure know what “terror” means but you see no difference in terrorists and terror suspect. Also what about the hundreds of Guantanamo detainees that were released on Bush’s watch, why is it so frightening to potentially have one or a couple released under Obama’s watch? What’s the difference?

I always wonder how neocons are able to walk around outside, from what it sounds like when you talk to them you’d think they run and hide everytime a loud bang happens. Who knows it could be a released Guantanamo Bay detainee doing a suicide bombing or a North Korean missile touching down! Lookout!!

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Unable to deal with actual opposition arguments, this columnist sets up strawmen to be knocked down. While it’s true that convicted felons rarely escape, that is not where the debate lies. The first question is whether these folks deserve the same protections afforded citizens. The next is whether a winnable criminal case can be presented, given much of the evidence is either classified or inadmissible under our justice system. Finally, it’s certainly true that the Bush administration released hundreds of detainees while retaining two basic groups: the worst of the worst who should never be released, and those who face persecution or execution should they be returned to their countries. Rather than give credit where credit is due, the obvious effort by the previous administration to avoid holding non-terrorists is either ignored or given as evidence that the remainder should also be released.

No attention should be paid to columnists that do not start with the facts, but rather with unlikely and exaggerated scenarios. This columnist further exaggerates the perception of bias by ignoring the fact that the current administration has revived military tribunals.

Posted by Len Johnson | Report as abusive

I look out across the Political landscape of our Country and I see America being slowly ripped off of her foundations by Democrats and Republicans both, with the help of Lobbyists and others of course. America has lost her direction. We, all of us, are responsible. We listened, we voted, we were persuaded by very eloquently words towards ideas that contradict with the Ideals of Liberty, Freedom, and Property promised in our Constitution, the Document our Country freed itself with and based itself upon.

Both political parties over the years have divided and polarized this Countries issues to the point that both parties have lost the Political Direction America needs to take. Democrats have shown their fiscal irresponsibility and socialist ideals rather clearly with President Obama. Over the years Republicans have fallen deeper into the arms of “Big Business” and the Dogma of Religion. Both Parties have drifted away from the Constitution, separation of Church and State, personal freedom, liberty and “Free Market Capitalism”

Big Business destroys the Free Market because of its size, it is simply too hard to compete with a Multinationals deep pockets when you are a small businessman, or a family business that can not get a line of credit large enough. The same reasoning can be applied to the Democrats gaining control of GM and AIG, with which they could undermine Insurers and other car makers in America with their size and Government backing. Both parties have been pulled, used, and manipulated by the FED, International Banks, Wall St. insiders, Industry and Business contacts, Lobbyists, large campaign contributors and Self Serving Interests.

Carved into the Thomas Jefferson Monument in Washington D.C., where I have stood in awe several times when I lived in Northern Virginia, are words I have based everything I have done on, and everything I plan to do. Those words
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”.
If you read the words Thomas Jefferson left for us, you will see he warned us against this very situation we now find ourselves facing.

This is why I propose that America needs a new direction, a new purpose. We need new ideas that will help us find our way back to our roots, back to the Liberty and Freedom America was famous for. I want to create a new Force in politics based on what made America the Greatest Free Country in the world. We need to take all ideas, talk to each other, listen to each other, compromise like Ladies and Gentleman, like Americans, and implement those idea without the arguing and bickering and back talking both political parties are known for.

Here is an example of what I mean. This Healthcare issue. Both sides have good points and ideas, along with bad ideas. Both sides are also being influenced by Lobbyists, Health Insurers, and others. We need health care, better health care. We spend the most on that care, but we are not even in the top 20, or even the top 40. Where is all that money going? Republicans do not want a single public player for fear of a Monopoly, as they should. Democrats say that a single public plan is the only way to provide the coverage needed by the poor and uninsured.

Let us be smart. Instead of a single Government plan, why don’t we break it up, public health insurance plans, by State? The Constitution clearly states whatever power not given to the Federal Government is regulated to the States. Each State has health programs already in place, I simply want to take Medicare, Medicaid, and all other Federal health programs and roll them into a superfund that will be split and divided amongst the State programs by population.
Americans already pay for healthcare with Medicare. I wish to increase Taxes on Casino profits and funnel those taxes into each States health program. What you lose at a casino is your money already, why should we let a vice like gambling continue to profit a few Mafia types when it can be used to better our lives? Why raise taxes on US if we do not have to?

Imagine the Job increase on two fronts. How many of us would go to Casino’s more knowing that even if we lose, we really are not losing. With more people traveling to Casinos (On a Train System I have in mind) the more chance small business along the way will grow from tourists. Jobs that support casinos should increase like dealers, servers, cleaners, security, cooks, along with jobs that go with Spa’s, Golf courses, and delivery services to those hot spots. Think of the relief families will have, financial and other, when they do not have to pay extraordinary prices for health coverage? Each State should have plenty of money to pay for the projected increase in work force needed for the health care of our elderly.

By placing the control of these funds in State hands, it places the control of these funds closer to you, the voting public, the Real Government of America. That is the spirit of America. That is the direction I know in my heart America needs to take. Of course details will need to be hammered out, but that is were you, the People, can be heard in your State, where you will not be drowned out by the other 49 States who think Healthcare should be this way, or that way.

We can even add the Militaries Budget for healthcare into the fund we split to ensure our Vets get the same care every American deserves. I have seen some of these VA hospitals and we need to do better, we can do better, we will do better. If we implement the Democrat plan to digitalize all health records, which should save Billions, the State run programs should make Private health care insurers become more competitive, or, Private Insurers can provide extra coverage, supplemental coverage for those who wish to have the best doctors since doctors need to be able to distinguish themselves by their ability, and deserve to be paid for that hard earned skill.

You see what can be done when we look at a situation from both sides, take what works from both, but make it work for all Americans and America. I want to create a Political Party based on this political idea of Americans and America first, not Business, Bankers, Lobbyists, and Special Interests who have Globalization as a goal. Thomas Jefferson created the Democratic-Republican party. I wish to do the same to bring America back to her roots, back to what made her great, the Greatest Free Country in the world. Like Yellow surrounds some of our American flags, almost as a protector, I suggest Yellow be our color with the every ready, and vigilante MinuteMan as our Mascot to remind us when action needs to be taken.

I have no money, no contacts in Business, or Wall St., or Washington to influence me to their way of “Playing Politics”. I am not here to play. I am here to restore America to her glory, but I can not do it alone. We, as citizens, need to stand up, like the Minutemen of old, and fight for what is right, for what we want, for the Ideals America represents. And if Republicans and Democrats continue not to listen to the People, we need to become Democratic-Republicans and show these Politicians the Error of their ways and restore America, remake her, rebuild her better and stronger than ever.

Posted by C. D. Walker | Report as abusive

I do not think that we will be able to set anyone free from Gitmo. If they were not terrorists going in, they will almost assuradly be terrorists coming out. I do not think that there is a good way out of Gitmo. The one thing that we cannot do is keep Gitmo open until the last one dies. At some point it will have to be closed.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

guys, get real:
Obama does not need to court us in Europe, we already liked him when he made his speech to the Democratic Convention in Boston;
since Guantanamo started how many prisoners were prosecuted and found guilty (I mean in the proper internationally approved way) and how many high security prisoners escaped from US prisons?;
what is the matter with Cheney, is he living in cloud cuckoo land, or just worried about being made accountable?;
I don’t think for one minute we need to fear those who are still at Guantanamo, there are plenty roaming the streets of New York, Paris, Berlin, London and Tehran, just to mention a few, and they are free, and our great intelligence systems know nothing about them.
God bless you all

Posted by Rudi Konrath | Report as abusive

The problem with moving the “detainees” into the States is that they would then become subject to the jurisdiction of local US courts – and that could end up putting them literally “on the streets and in the neighborhoods.”

These people were caught in the act of making war illegally. According to the Geneva Conventions they should have been either handed or shot on the spot of their capture.

Remember Nathan Hale? He was a 20 year old American who removed his uniform and deliberately violated the Rules of War to gain some espionage on the British. When the brits caught up with him they hanged him on the spot.

The fact that these Guantanamo prisoners are even alive speaks volumes about the mercy and tenderness of the US military; or of its weakness. You decide, but it’s a lie to say the US has been cruel in any way in this case.

Posted by zed | Report as abusive

Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 – September 22, 1776) are you serious? its 2009 if you didn’t notice!

If there is evidence then they should be tried and given the appropriate punishment, if not let them go!

Posted by bert | Report as abusive

Bringing these foreigners to be judged under American law for their alleged crimes against the US is the right thing to do. Think of it as simple “forced” extradition of criminals. If they are found guilty they go to a supermax and there is no chance they could ever escape. In fact, the chance of a foreign terrorist successfully crossing our border to do harm is MUCH higher. If they are found not guilty, they ARE NOT “free to go” to our neighborhoods, simply because they lack a US immigrant visa to do so. They would never be the same as US citizens or resident aliens because they would not be legally allowed to stay in the US. No foreigner has the right to roam free in the US without a visa. Illegals do it because the state does not “fully” enforce the law by catching and deporting all of them. But these cases are different and that’s where I think most of the confusion lies. Without a US visa, as soon as they are found not guilty they can be lawfully held by USCIS at the court door, to be immediately deported to their country of origin or anywhere else in the world.

Posted by Juan | Report as abusive

I think all those who can’t be charged with a crime under the US system should simply be returned to the wonderful law abiding, human rights respecting regimes that they come from. Then all the bleeding hearts can go protest for their freedom there. Of course they will most likely simply be executed and if not the regimes will ignore any protests anyway. But then again who protests anyone but the US ( of and of course Israel) because no other nation violates international law, abuses prisoners, denies due process or human rights. Well at least that’s the image you get if you listen to the leftists here and in Europe.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

i would like to know the working of obama’s mind in closing gitmo. why does he have an affinity for muslims
explaining his comments “we are no longer a christian
nation . then includes muslim in our population. his attitude in europe by calling the american “arrogant, what president puts down his country.
that is tatamount to treason. making us vulnerable