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Human Rights

For First Time Since 2009, U.S. Senate Talks Closing Guantanamo

WASHINGTON, Jul 25 2013 (IPS) - Momentum appears to be building in the push to close down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, where 166 inmates, 86 of whom have been cleared for release, remain held without charges.

On Wednesday, a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing focused specifically on the merits of shuttering the prison. It was the first such meeting in four years, and comes just a few months after U.S. President Barack Obama renewed a pledge he first made in 2008 to close down the detention centre.

U.S. groups advocating for the closure of the facility believe Wednesday’s hearing is another sign that change may be imminent.

“It feels like we are getting to a tipping point on this issue,” Elisa Massimino, president of the Washington-based watchdog group Human Rights First and one of the witnesses at the hearing, told IPS shortly after she gave testimony.

Massimino notes that, in addition to Obama’s recently renewed pledge, the hearing also comes on the heels of new controversies that have put the issue of closing down the prison “back on the radar screen”. She cites revelations of operating costs that are higher than previously understood and the ongoing force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates.

She also points to recent statements by prominent lawmakers, such as Senator John McCain, in favour of shuttering the facility.

The witnesses who spoke Wednesday came from varying backgrounds and expressed vastly different viewpoints. While most were in support of seeing the prison shut down, some continued to highlight its importance as a tool in the ongoing U.S. “war on terror”.

“If Guantanamo is closed, it raises the question of where these terrorists will be sent,” Senator Ted Cruz said at the hearing, referring to inmates being held without charge.

“Radical terrorism remains a live threat,” he added, noting recent attacks on U.S. targets in Boston, Benghazi and Fort Hood, Texas.

Frank Gaffney, a commentator who writes for the Washington Times and whose Centre for Security Policy is viewed by many as a lead proponent of Islamophobic views, accused those advocating for the closure of the prison of forgetting why it was established in the first place.

“We are at war because others attacked us,” Gaffney asserted at the hearing.

He testified that the Guantanamo detention centre exists because there is “no better option”, stating that the prospects of sending some prisoners to other countries and bringing others to the United States are too dangerous to be adopted.

Releasing inmates abroad, Gaffney said, brings about the possibility that they could “return to the battlefield”. Meanwhile, bringing them into the U.S. prison system, he continued, offers the possibility that they could proselytise within U.S. prisons, that “sympathetic judges” could eventually authorise their release, or that a large-scale escape could take place.

Gaffney also warned that shutting down Guantanamo would signal weakness on the part of the United States, potentially encouraging more aggressive behaviour by anti-U.S. forces.

Proponents of closing the facility down cast doubt on many of these claims, however.

“Protecting ourselves can still be accomplished by holding [detainees] in the U.S.,” said Adam Smith, a member of the House of Representatives.

Smith pointed out that, along with a great number of murderers and paedophiles, hundreds of criminals convicted of charges related to terrorism are already being held in high-security U.S. prisons.

“The idea that, instead of having 400 terrorist inmates, we have maybe 484 in the U.S., [and that this] is somehow going to massively increase the threat is just ridiculous on its face,” said Smith.

“Terror-creating institution”

Those in favour of closure also argued Wednesday that, while some detainees would likely engage in anti-U.S. activities if released abroad, the prison’s continued existence actually makes the country less safe.

Paul Eaton, a retired major-general in the U.S. Army, testified that Guantanamo harms the international reputation of the U.S., a sentiment supported by a letter sent yesterday by 26 other generals which stated that “Guantanamo is a symbol of torture and injustice not befitting a nation that is a beacon of liberty to the world.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, corroborated these assertions by saying that practices at Guantanamo “make a myth” of the U.S. legal system.

Eaton also claimed the facility works as a recruiting tool for jihadist groups and creates more motivation for terrorism than it suppresses. He referred to it as a “terror-creating institution”.

“[The prison] facilitates the filling of the ranks of Al-Qaeda and other organisations that would attack the U.S.,” Eaton stated.

Multiple speakers at Wednesday’s hearing denounced the financial costs of the prison, noting that for every inmate there, the U.S. government, which is currently cutting budgets elsewhere, spends around 2.7 million dollars a year. This is far greater than the roughly 78,000 dollars it spends annually on inmates being held at the U.S. system’s highest-security prison, Florence ADX in Colorado.

The Florence prison currently holds the only participant in the Sep. 11, 2001, attacks to be tried in civilian court, Zacarias Moussaoui. It also holds Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and the vigilante known as the “Unabomber”, Ted Kaczynski.

While Massimino of Human Rights First expressed gratitude for Wednesday’s hearing, she told IPS that she lamented the absence of any representative of the Obama administration.

She notes that while there is currently a great deal of popular interest in seeing the prison shut down – indeed, Wednesday’s hearing had to be moved to a larger room due to high public turnout – there remains a lack of adequate political incentive to tackle the issue.

“I give a lot of credit to Senator [Richard] Durbin,” says Massimino, referring to the head of the committee that held the hearing. “This issue does not generate a lot of campaign contributions or press coverage, but he has done a great job in trying to keep it on the radar screen.”

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