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The “We’re Safer With Them in Gitmo” Talking Point Doesn’t Make Sense

February 16th, 2010 By: Michael Merritt
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There has been much debate over the past year, and longer than that, about where the United States should house detainees still being held in the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  A plan initiated by President Obama last year is slow to come to fruition due to logistical issues, a lot of NIMBYness from politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as warnings about the rise of attempted attacks on the U.S. should we move terrorists inland.

The talking point from Republicans and hawkish Democrats during this time has been that placing the remaining detainees in a prison within the borders of the United States would make create a security risk.  I haven’t actually seen many specifics on what exactly the threat would be, but my inference is that the target would either be the prison or the community surrounding it.

This position was taken up again today by NRO’s Andrew McCarthy, who thinks that moving the detainees to a stateside prison would be a mistake.  However, I think McCarthy makes a better argument in favor of moving the detainees stateside than he does for keeping them in Gitmo.

From McCarthy’s article (emph. mine):

The Left’s counter to this is the claim that Gitmo fuels terrorist recruitment. That is absurd, and, as I’ve said before, confuses a pretext with a cause.  People in the Islamic world could not care less whether we are detaining Muslim terrorists based on civilian protocols or under the laws of war: They don’t know the difference. The Blind Sheikh’s disciples mass-murdered people in an attempt to extort his release despite the fact that he is in a nice civilian jail after having had his nice civilian trial. What offends many in the umma is that we are holding Muslim terrorists, period. They don’t care where.

He’s right on one thing.  They don’t care where we hold them.

Despite the fact that most of our detainees remain in Guantanamo Bay, a Yemeni national tried to blow a plane out of the sky on Christmas Day.  Also, despite the fact that several actual enemy combatants are in civilian prisons right now, not one terrorist who has tried to attack us since 9/11 has actually gone near one of those prisons.

True, the underwear bomber was trying to kill people near Denver, Colorado.  Let us not forget that both Richard Reid and Zacharias Moussaoi are held in Florence, which is 2 1/2 hours away.  So based on the warnings we’ve heard from Republicans, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab ought to have waited until the plane landed and then headed for Florence.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he tried to set his bomb off while still in the air.

Of the other foiled terror plots since 9/11, most have been planned for New York City or surrounding areas, a couple for D.C., and one for Seattle.  All cities.  Clearly Al-Qaeda continues to prefer going for the grand effect, and I’m not sure that blowing up a prison would achieve that.  While I don’t wish to discount the loss of life of servicemen and women, and other prison staff that would occur, it seems to me that terrorists would still much rather kill civilians and cripple our economic centers.  You don’t do that by blowing up a prison or going for the low population community surrounding it.  You do that by going where it hurts the most: the cities.

That page lists 19 plots foiled (18 if you don’t count their inclusion of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).  Eighteen, and that was before there was any talk of closing Gitmo.  Andrew McCarthy is right: they don’t care where we hold the detainees.  Whether Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Florence, Colorado; or Thomson, Illinois, they’re still going to try and kill us.  Add on to the fact that a future Thomson facility is likely to have security above even that of current supermaxes, and I think it highly unlikely that any terrorists with more than a pea for a brain will try to target it, just as they haven’t tried to target the current locations of terrorists in the past nine years.

In the end, I’m actually fairly indifferent about where we hold them.  I don’t take much stock in the argument by liberals that McCarthy highlights: that holding them in Gitmo is increasing the recruitment of new terrorists.  Terrorist recruitment is going to happen anyway, and their recruiters will always find some reason to appeal to people, whether Gitmo remains open or it is closed.  I’m more concerned about relevant problems, and the real issues are not where we hold convicted (and non-yet-convicted) terrorists.  It’s stopping the ones who are free right now from trying to plan and execute their plots, as well as not releasing terrorists back to countries where they will just be freed to go and take up arms again.  That must be the real focus, not this petty bickering on where we hold them.

That page lists 19 plots foiled (18 if you don’t count their inclusion of KSM).  18, and that was before there was any talk of closing Gitmo.
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  1. Patrick Glenn

    February 16th, 2010 at 19:55

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    #1

    Michael, you make several good points. However, we might need to distinguish between holding a run-of-the-mill Al-Qaeda terrorist foot soldier in a “supermax”-type prison in the U.S. versus holding a very high ranking, symbolic Al-Qaeda leader. Jihadists aren’t going to expend a bunch of resources on the Richard Reids. But let’s say that 12 months from now, the policy were changed as you suggest, and Guantano is closed, and we capture Osama Bin Laden (I know, he’s probably dead). Keeping Bin Laden in Florence, Colorada would be a major security risk.


  2. Rob Miller

    February 16th, 2010 at 20:17

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    #2

    Hello Michael,

    Since, as McCarthy notes, the American taxpayers have already spent a large sum making Club Gitmo into an Islamist’s tropical paradise ( halal meals, free prayer rugs, and restricted, baby – no Jews allowed!) why not use it?

    And why take a chance on a terrorist mission to free them taking place on American soil, or their imams or lawyers passing messages to al-Qaida , the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups? if you think that’s a bit far-fetched, you might remember the case of Lynn Stewart, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman’s treasonous lawyer?

    The two examples you mention, Richard Reid and Zacharias Moussaoi are held where they are because Reid is a British subject and Moussaoi a French citizen, and the Bush Administration needed to make certain agreements in order to get these countries to agree to waive extradition and allow them to be tried here.

    McCarthy’s right. If Obama wants a deal to try KSM by military tribunal in exchange for political help in closing Club Gitmo, no deal. Hold Obama’s feet to the fire for his mistakes and make him re-open Club Gitmo, or take the political fall out.

    Regards,

    Rob Mill @ Joshuapundit


  3. redfish

    February 17th, 2010 at 01:16

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    #3

    I don’t think they’re dangerous to the outside population at all. Maybe another concern is that they want to control the prison environment and limit the access of terrorists. Prevent them from engaging with other inmates or with visitors. I’m not sure what the difference is in what rights someone would have in a civilian prison vs what rights someone would have in a military prison.


  4. Michael_Merritt

    February 17th, 2010 at 05:32

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    #4

    I’ll tackle your questions in the second paragraph in two parts:

    And why take a chance on a terrorist mission to free them taking place on American soil

    While this is a possibility, there’s an equal possibility that they might try an attack because we’re holding them anywhere, even Guantanamo. Their mission is to cause as much turmoil as possible, and the location of a high profile terrorists will not stop them from attacking us.

    In any case, I think such an attack is highly unlikely to succeed. I would venture to guess (but don’t know 100%) that any stateside prison would have its security upped beyond the stratosphere, including several miles around the area (supermaxes are usually held outside their parent town), and the airspace above.

    As it stands, nobody have ever escaped from a supermax prison (though one has tried). Terrorists are not supervillians with magic powers. If they wished to free a high profile terrorist, they’d have to employ the same tactics any other criminal would to do the job. If someone could do the job, I’d want to know how they did it, and how to prevent it from happening again, almost as much as I’d want to catch the bastards who did it, and the person they freed.

    if you think that’s a bit far-fetched, you might remember the case of Lynn Stewart, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman’s treasonous lawyer?

    I’ve seen this argument elsewhere, other than your site, that is. I consider this a completely separate issue. That’s not so much a problem of where we hold them, but how we try them. McCarthy tried to conflate the two as well, but I don’t buy it. I think whether to hold military commissions for some terrorists (warmly for it) and where their detention will be (as I said above, indifferent) are two different topics.


  5. Michael_Merritt

    February 17th, 2010 at 05:39

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    #5

    See my response to Rob Miller below.


  6. Michael_Merritt

    February 17th, 2010 at 05:40

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    #6

    Prevent them from engaging with other inmates or with visitors.

    As I said to Rob Miller above, this is more a case of how we try them than where we hold them.


  7. Rob Miller

    February 17th, 2010 at 06:23

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    #7

    OK Michael…fair enough! You’re right, it’s how we try them, rather than where.

    I don’t think we’re all that far apart at all..except since we spent the millions to outfit Club Gitmo already, why not use it?

    Another question I have ( and I admittedly am not sure about this one) but do these jihadi scum have different rights once they’re on US soil?

    All Good Things,

    Rob


  8. Rob Miller

    February 17th, 2010 at 06:25

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    #8

    Oh, and re: Lynn Stewart, I’m wondering if access to imprisoned jihadis might be more controlled in a military and isolated environment like Club Gitmo than a Supermax.


  9. redfish

    February 17th, 2010 at 06:33

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    #9

    Yea, I suppose it has more to do with whether they’re treated as regular criminals according to the law. I’d assume that if they’re considered to be the same as regular criminals, at a regular prison they’d be accorded certain rights/

    The biggest issue here is probably political. Mayors seem to not want the terrorists in their cities for political reasons. The gov’t wants to keep them in military prisons to present an image of toughness, and the opposition is against it because they don’t want the image of toughness.


  10. Michael_Merritt

    February 17th, 2010 at 06:39

    except since we spent the millions to outfit Club Gitmo already, why not use it?

    I don’t see a good reason why not. Like I wrote in the article, I don’t buy the left’s biggest argument about it. I think the main reason is that it symbolizes what the past eight years (or more like the first four years of that) were. If we hadn’t done the waterboarding and secret CIA prison thing, it might not be an issue at all.

    Another question I have ( and I admittedly am not sure about this one) but do these jihadi scum have different rights once they’re on US soil?

    Not 100% certain, but I think it matters whether they’ve been put through the civilian or military commissions system. As far as I know (through some quick and rather unverified research), detainees through MCs don’t get to choose their lawyer. Instead, they’re appointed one by the military.


  11. Michael_Merritt

    February 17th, 2010 at 06:42

    From my research on this topic, supermaxes sound pretty much a half step down from Gitmo, though if your description of Gitmo is as you say, it almost sounds like Gitmo is a half step down from a supermax. Supermax prisoners are in their cells for most of the day, I believe, with limited access to other people.

    Again, it probably comes down to military vs. civilian systems. In a MC conviction, the only place a detainee can appeal is to the President.


  12. jlh

    February 17th, 2010 at 18:36

    What are the chances that they will do as Muslim inmates in other prisons have done-proselytize? All we need is super bad guys turning into jihadis.


  13. Michael_Merritt

    February 18th, 2010 at 04:49

    Supermax prisons lock you up for most of the day. Not really any room for preaching, as it were.

    Besides, if the only people in the Thomson prison (or Gitmo) are already Muslims there’ll be no one to convert.







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