Closing Guantanamo a return to America's values
Posted on Wednesday, January 28, 2009
All but the most far-gone adepts of the Chicken Little Right have long understood the need to shut down the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The damage done to U.S. prestige has been incalculable, enabling its enemies to portray America's vaunted commitment to democratic values, human rights and the rule of law as a sham.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates long has advocated closing Guantanamo. As President Obama signed the executive order last week, he was surrounded by sixteen retired admirals and generals who'd urged the action. Major General Paul Eaton, who has a son on duty in the Middle East, told The New Yorker's Jane Mayer that "torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough. It's also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have."
This last point can't be stressed enough. By turning tyrant and bully, the Bush administration forfeited the moral high ground, no doubt creating a hundred Islamic extremists for every one incarcerated at Guantanamo.
Incapable of admitting error, the previous administration preferred sophomoric debates about the existence of evil and the brutality of war. So it should surprise nobody that some Republicans appeared to see closing Guantanamo as a chance to plant a partisan time bomb under the Obama White House.
Former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney spent much of their last week in office taking credit for something that didn't happen; possibly because many things that did don't exactly redound to their glory.
Cheney expressed no regrets whatsoever. He told CBS News that, thanks to the Bush administration, "the thing that I feel most strongly about is this question of how we've managed to keep the nation safe from further terrorist attacks for the last seven and a half years." Fair enough, although al-Qa'ida's top leadership remains at large. The purpose of terrorism isn't military victories; it's political and psychological.
Bush warned that closing Guantanamo could be dangerous. "You've got a bunch of cold-blooded killers down there," he said, "that, if they ever get out, they're going to come and kill Americans. And I'd hate to be the person that made that decision."
Marc A. Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter, made the threat explicit in a Washington Post column: "If terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible-and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation." How's that for elevating party over country? What if the Clinton administration, which also prevented terrorist attacks on U.S. soil after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had taken such a stance?
On cue, media accounts began to appear claiming that detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist activities. Several points need to be made. First, it's not Obama who set these men free; it was the Bush administration. Second, it's already known that some Guantanamo detainees are guilty of no crimes against the U.S, of which the best-known are 17 ethnic Uighurs (Chinese Muslims) imprisoned because it's feared they'd be tortured or executed if sent home.
Third, it's unclear how many of the rest are like an Afghan boy named Mohammed Jawad, captured at age 15, who signed a confession written in Farsi, a language he neither speaks nor reads. Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld was the government's leading prosecutor until he became persuaded there was no credible evidence, and resigned his commission to urge the boy's release.
Finally, the United States and other civilized countries have been trying and convicting genuine terrorists in courts of law for a generation. They're incarcerated in maximum security prisons all over the civilized world. This isn't a vampire movie, where armies of superhuman foes march impervious to harm. A strong, confident nation can defeat al-Qa'ida without shaming ourselves.
In a "Voices" letter Lonnie Hill of Fayetteville challenges me to explain a "discrepancy" in a column about bad intelligence leading up to the Iraq war. He claims I cited the British government's "Downing Street Memo" to prove that the Bush administration "fixed" evidence of Iraq's (non-existent) WMDs.
The word "fixed" wasn't mine. Here's what the column did say.
"According to the once-secret 'Downing Street Memo,' written by a British intelligence official to Prime Minister Blair about top level meetings with Bush administration officials in July 2002, 'Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.'
"Instances of intelligence being "stovepiped," i.e. stripped of uncertainties and dissenting views, have been widely reported. . . . Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice made lurid public statements about 'mushroom clouds' and the like they eventually had to retract. At minimum, they were blowing smoke, substituting ideology for facts."
Rather, I'm afraid, like Mr. Hill himself.
· -–––––·–––––-Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a लिटिल Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.