President Obama has been trying to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for the last seven years. He has failed. By keeping Guantanamo open, the United States gives the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a propaganda tool. ISIS uses Guantanamo to recruit and to radicalize individuals to its cause. The orange jumpsuits that men wear in ISIS beheading videos are directly related to the jumpsuits worn by inmates at Guantanamo. By closing Guantanamo, the United States can help delegitimize the extremist message.
Congress currently bars the transfer of the facility’s detainees to the United States, and Guantanamo can only be closed for good with the overturning of this ban. Thus, the best way to solve the problem of Guantanamo is to solve it in the United States. President Obama needs to use his remaining time in office to persuade the public and U.S. Congress that there is a better alternative to keeping the facility open. He should begin an informational campaign to explain why bringing the detainees to the United States protects national security and enhances foreign policy.
Transferring the detainees to the United States is the best available policy option for many reasons. The first relates to economic costs. It costs more than $2.5 million per detainee compared to $86,374 per inmate in Colorado’s super-maximum security facility. Closing Guantanamo will close down a multi-million dollar financial drain on the United States and free up money that could be directed to other federal and state run programs.
Second, keeping the Guantanamo detention facility open has significant political costs. The United States has spent vital political capital transferring detainees out of Guantanamo. In January 2002 there were 779 prisoners there. Today that number is down to 112. The United Arab Emirates recently agreed to accept another five. Allies have assisted the United States by accepting the hundreds of detainees that have been transferred thus far – detainees that did not commit any crimes on their soil. The terms of the negotiations for the transfer of detainees abroad have not been released. This is political capital that should be employed on other issues.
Finally, there are significant social costs associated with the Guantanamo facility. The detention center has become a threat to U.S. national security rather than a solution. The prison has further incited anti-American sentiment, not reduced it. U.S. allies are also critical of the detention center. It is seen in the international community as hypocritical that the United States proclaims the importance of rule of law, but then hold detainees for years without trial or charges. American policy makers need to set a better example.
The transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to other countries is not the norm. Historically, countries have accepted or released prisoners as part of an exchange. In October 2011, Israel swapped 25 jailed Egyptians for Ilan Grapel, an Israeli detained in Egypt on accusations of recruitment. Jordan offered ISIS a prisoner exchange for downed Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseabeh in 2015. The talks fell through and al-Kaseabeh was killed. A similar precedent was set in the United States when Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was exchanged for the release of five Taliban members. The American public does not know what the terms of the transfer of current detainees out of Guantanamo have been. 112 remaining prisoners is contextually a small number, but when transfers are of 1-5 prisoners, finding a place to send 112 is a large task.
Some have called for President Obama to issue an executive order closing the facility. That would be a mistake. An executive order would contradict current U.S. law that bans detainees from entering the United States. The President could not sustain such an approach in Congress, the courts, or the court of opinion.
Critics of President Obama’s efforts to close the facility say the detainees pose a security risk to the United States. Some members of Congress argue that the U.S. citizen do not want terrorists in their backyard. But where else would you want someone who poses a threat to you, other than in your direct control and custody? Transferring detainees to a third party where they could get shorter prison sentences, radicalize others in the prison population, and ultimately plan an attack on the United States is the nightmare that must be avoided.
The United States has some of the most secure and advanced prisons in the world. U.S. citizens are much safer if the Guantanamo detainees are in a super-maximum security facility in the United States than if they are returned to a country in the Middle East. Also, if part of the argument is about safety and not wanting the prisoners in the United States, President Obama has made clear that an open Guantanamo poses a national security threat. Keeping Guantanamo open is arguably more dangerous in the long term than transferring the remaining prisoners to the United States.
Closing Guantanamo will take a significant effort of public persuasion. The President came into office pledging to do it, and he still can. An informational campaign is valuable because it will engage the American public on this important issue, which does not have an easy solution. Closing Guantanamo will improve national security and the security of U.S. allies. Closing Guantanamo will also be an important step in delegitimizing ISIS, and by extension an important step in making the world a safer place.
Ariel Bigio is a second-year Security Policy Studies candidate with concentrations in U.S. foreign policy and Transnational Security studies. She is currently working at a consulting firm in McLean.