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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The arguements I’ve heard against terrorists in prison on US soil is not about them escaping, as much as making the prisons the target of future attacks.

And I didn’t think Obama had hid the fact that he was trying to improve the US reputation overseas. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine some of his policies being crafted with that in mind.

Great piece BD.

What about the 4 recently caught Terrorists in NY? I don’t hear the Senators from NY clamoring for those 4 to be shipped off somewhere else? Just how two-faced are these Senators, all of them? Gitmo is a sour subject, only because Republicans wish to make it an issue, an issue with which they are trying to impede the direction this country needs to take. I have to question the loyalty of some of these American Senators, from both sides. Where is their loyalty? To their contributors, to their fund raising managers? To their Business contacts?
Or do they have more Loyalty to Party instead of Country?

If they are more Loyal to Party instead of Country, well, then they are DIVIDING the country when we need to become more unified against the growing threats of Venezuela, China, Iran, N. Korea, and other terrorists organizations across the globe.

United we stand, Divided we fall.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

While I wholeheartedly agree with Bernd’s article, I think that there is an underlying political and public fear that isn’t being clearly addressed, namely, that if Guantanamo detainees are brought to U.S. soil, they will have to be prosecuted according to the due process of U.S. law.

As the recent civilian murder conviction of a former Marine illustrates, criminal prosecution under U.S. civilian law certainly has the liability of producing different outcomes than military procedures.

The (inarticulate) suspicion behind the rhetoric is that, given access to U.S. rule of law, these detainees will be exonerated or not found guilty. This, of course, will release them into the public, both to tell their stories and to seek reparations under U.S. law.

The fact that we fear giving people access to our law system demonstrates the heinous betrayal of our values that has occurred at Guantanamo, which has been perpetrated falsely under the auspices of “protecting” “the American way of life,” in other words, “defending” our manner of accomplishing justice and government.

It is too late to make these people just “disappear” in order to cover or to justify our national duplicity.

We must bring the light of day and answer for who we have become, instead of rationalizing and propping-up the charade of having a moral higher ground, which we may have claimed before we compromised that very thing in the name of protecting it.

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann fails to articulate the unintended consequences of transferring GTMO detainees to US soil. Once here, they fall under the auspices of the US Legal system. American taxpayers – once again – get stuck with picking up both the costs of maximum security and their new rights to a legal defense. And – for the record – escapes from maximum security prisons DO happen – hence the onslaught of recent commercial “max security” prisons and guaranteed imprisonment.
Since when do prisoners of war get the same rights afforded U S citizens – or any other country, for that matter? Is quid pro quo in effect? – no wait…they behead us – once they’ve interrogated U S soldiers!
Would have been cheaper and more expedient to end the matter in a clear “war” effort.

Posted by Stephen Ben | Report as abusive

I don’t see why holding them in one place instead of the other is worth the effort. We went through all the trouble of building this gitmo detention center. I don’t understand why they can not just be called “combatants” and we hold them till the “war” is over. It’s too bad we don’t seem to think that day will ever come, however if they signed up for the fight and the day never comes that we win then we hold them forever it’s not complicated. I don’t see moving as any kind of PR plus, a PR plus might be to let the IRC visit every now an then.

Posted by Reza | Report as abusive

The politics of fear are at play here on this issue. An attack on the supermax prisons? Terrorists wouldn’t be able to get past the front gate.

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive

And I don’t see an issue with paying for justice in our legal system when we pay so much more for the killing of thousands abroad. Kind of a double standard.

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive

Our founding fathers knew that when they signed the Declaration of Independence, they were possibly signing their own death warrants, guilty of treason against the Crown. During the war of 1812 (really our second war for independence) the British got close enough to victory to set the White House on fire. Every generation since then has seen the founding principles of this nation threatened, in what has always been a violent world.
Now, in this newest struggle, we want the “war on terror” fought “over there,” out of our sight. We give our leaders carte blanche to imprison without trial, torture and even kill an unknown number of prisoners of war, as long as we can pretend it’s not happening.
We have become a nation of cowards. I for one would welcome a prison for the Guantanamo detainees right in my neighborhood, if it meant knowing more about what my government is doing in my name. A government which can commit atrocities in secret with impunity, can commit those atrocities not just upon faceless “detainees” but on you and me as well. How could we prevent it? We can’t stop what we don’t know about. Secrecy is the enemy of freedom. Do you really trust your government never to use these powers on its own citizens? I don’t. Do you really trust your government to tell you the truth about who has been imprisoned, tortured and killed? I don’t. The truth will come out only if we demand to know. Too many of us don’t want to know.

Posted by Kelly | Report as abusive

@ Stephen Ben

who do you think pays for Guantanamo? The nation of Cuba? Surely you’re not that brain-dead? How much do you think its costing us to house a specific population of prisoners on foreign soil with an attendant military force to watch over them? Yours has to be the most idiotic argument I’ve yet encountered.

Also, technically, these aren’t “prisoners of war”. The “War on Terror” is not an official declaration of war from congress, its was a handy news blurb made up by the former administration to rally peoples emotions post 9/11. We either try both foreign and domestic criminals under our laws or our laws mean nothing. Get your head out of the blubbering emotional scare tactics that outlets like Foxnews love putting forth and use common sense.

Posted by CitizenLand | Report as abusive

I think terrorists are a threat to the worlds security.

Adam said
“I think that there is an underlying political and public fear that isn’t being clearly addressed, namely, that if Guantanamo detainees are brought to U.S. soil, they will have to be prosecuted according to the due process of U.S. law.”

The biggest fear the whole of America should have is that OUR government is IGNORING their own laws and OUR Constitution by denying due process.

What is to stop someone, like Cheney, from detaining a person, an American citizen, for disagreeing with him in political views?
We have had people for 8 years without a trail?
How can we denounce China and other nations for their violations on human rights, when we are doing the exact same thing ourselves?

What do we stand for? If it is the constitution, then those human beings need to be able to defend themselves, like any American should be allowed to do.

If not the constitution, then execute them and be done with this SHAME of human rights.

Of course this will prove to China, Iran, Venezuela, and other terrorists that we really are the Imperial, power hungry, bent on world domination with not care for any other race, nation, or religion that those people and countries claim we are.

So what are we people, we need to decide. And do it now.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Good piece of info. Among President Obama’s thus-far very impressive and appreciated feats, this one is maybe just a little far out on the limb. I do believe that this man, like no other before him, has initiated a much-needed impression to the world that we as a people (America) are much more decent than the reckless aggressors that other parts of the world have perceived (or been manipulated to believe) us to be.

Very wise words in Cheney’s quote- he warned of “regret”. Too bad that word sometimes just blends in with the drone of political buzzwords, and people fail to stop and think “regret? ….you mean stuff we can’t like…..Ctrl-Z (undo) that will generate years of sadness and pain and make us wish we could turn back time…..?” Yes, that and potentially much more.

We tend to address even cataclysmic issues only AFTER they have become a crisis, and even worse, don’t even think of what we COULD have done to avert it. Just a random hypothetical example- let’s say one of the “supermen” was released into the general population (the non-penal one) on some technicality. Once he’s on this side of the barbs, his civil rights are protected, his weapons cache is actually nothing more than a hobby, and his actions- although resulting in mass regret, are “explicable due to his unjust and cruel confinement for so many years…..blah blah…..”(?!?!)

While this may be an outreach of humanity by a leader to make a positive statement on behalf of this country, it ain’t always wise to feed the hand that bit ya.

Posted by rich | Report as abusive

How soon people forget. It didn’t take long for people to forget that we are at war, no matter how you try to spin it. You don’t treat enemy soldiers as criminals, you don’t police up a battlefield for evidence for later prosecution. All the bleating from the left will go away after the unfortunate next attack that our new weak leadership is inviting. Some people don’t understand anything but strength and they see the desire to talk as weakness. Try to negotiate with these Islamist extremists and see where it gets you. I regret the need for another deadly attack to get the focus back to where it belongs. I laugh when I see people dressed as Abu Ghraid detainees, what about dressing like the people who jumped from the tops of the World Trade Center, how about dressing up like a beheaded westerner? That’s not currently cool or hip. It’s the same sad self loathing liberal guilt again, that’s what happens when people forget that war is a terrible thing. Good luck “restoring America’s virtue, much like virginity it’s gone and not coming back.

Posted by Frank Castle | Report as abusive

There’s really not much to worry about. If those nasty, scarey terrorists are put in American prisons, in general population, they will be dressed as girls and doing the laundry of the big boys on the cell block within six months.

Posted by John peace | Report as abusive

How many of people who are kept in Guantanamo committed crimes on US sole. Apparently none. They have committed crimes against US overseas. They did not commit crimes against Taliban, government of Afghanistan during US invasion. There is no law system that would cover situation like this. I understand that people who are caught on US soil during criminal act must be tried according to American law (that is why the 20th hijacker was tried in court) Those people were caught by the army when they were committing crimes against the army without identification as an enemy. That is why there must be a special military law for those people, and that is why they were located in a military prison. We will create a disaster for our criminal system if try those people in our civil courts. Can you imagine if somebody would kidnapped Hitler during the WWII, because he committed crimes against humanity and US, and try him by US civil code? It is absurd.

Posted by dina | Report as abusive

We are better off keeping them in Gitmo, incommunicado, so their fellow terrorists don’t even know they’re there. If we publish their names their brothers in terror may start taking Americans hostage to exchange for them. It doesn’t make sense to subject Americans even to a hypothetical threat.
If we bring them to American soil then we’ll have to provide them with all the rights and lawyers. Lawyers are expensive, you know. These guys are not worth the expense. The American taxpayers already have to pay for too many things, better treatment of illegal enemy combatants should not be added to the bill.
If there’s a need to remove these terrorists from the security of their cells, the best way would be to load them all into cargo hold of a barge, weld the hatches shut, tow the barge to a deep place in the middle of the ocean, and sink it there.
I said it once, will not hesitate to repeat as many times over as needed for it to sink in.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive


“Very wise words in Cheney’s quote-”

Very subtle of you to start in with praises of Obama.
Then say Cheney is wise.
I know who you are
Subtle, slick, and sly

You will stoop to any low, even trying to subvert the peoples view and will.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive


“We are better off keeping them in Gitmo, incommunicado,”

So your against the Constitution of the United States, which is the greatest document on human rights, liberties, and freedoms ever written by man.

You are no better than a terrorist, who of course hate our freedoms and liberties.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

While others here have covered the omissions made by BD, I want to address the issue he started to unravel, and then went into Republican-bashing (which is contagious, kinda like fear – all the cool kids are doing it).

Obama deftly dodged any discussions of how we would close Gitmo while on the campaign trail. Now we know why. He promised change, but on this issue, he may have had no idea of how hard that change might be (or more likely, he did). The very issues facing Obama, in regards to the detainess, are the very same reasons Gitmo prison was built in the first place. A man with no leadership experience, but plenty of pop-star experience, will always promise that which cannot be delivered. Everyone was worried about “What changes?”, instead of “How will you pull it off?”. We always save those questions for after the crisis has occurred. Is a half-truth considered a lie, or is it just audacity?

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Dina, and Frank-

The problem is that you are assuming guilt. It has not been established yet what any of these detainees has been “caught” doing — according to the rule of law in the U.S., that is THE issue — accusation is not the same as fact or guilt and one may not be imprisoned without charge together with the subsequent (and speedy) right to a trial.

These people have not been accorded prisoner of war status either, otherwise they could have international guarantees of process and treatment.

Espousing policy of killing detainees based on suspicion, accusation or over-zealous definitions of “defense” is Anti-American and is in itself an attack upon this nation.

Corruption or violation of our core principles and law, whether by persons in elected position or under color of military or legal “service,” however creatively worded or executed, is also in reality an attack upon this nation, regardless of the presence or absence of any outside combatants or “war.”

It’s absolutely absurd to object to paying for legal process. It’s a mandate of our rule of law. It’s also absurd to do so in light of the hundreds of billions spent on this “war” on terror. Who was complaining about the cost for running Guantanamo the last eight years?!

Since Nuremburg crying, “War!” has failed for justifying abrogation of law or human rights. It’s insulting, dishonorable and atrocious to hear Americans making the justifying claims that Nazis made.

(C.D., I think you need to read my whole post before responding — the quote you cite means that the public dialog is not articulating or acknowledging the deep public fear and suspicion that some of the detainees may be exonerated if tried fairly and openly according to law. While such is the case with the public dialog, it is far from appropriate, in fact, it is appalling.)

Posted by adam | Report as abusive

Who will protect America from those who “protect” America?!

Posted by adam | Report as abusive