Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Guests of the nation

The Pentagon and White House are mounting a final PR offensive to defend Guantanamo Bay before the new administration comes in. Here's Dick Cheney from an interview with Bill "Dice" Bennett today --

Q ... The papers are reporting this morning that President-Elect Obama may, on the first day or first week, close Guantanamo. Good decision, bad decision?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I think it's a bad decision. Guantanamo is sort of a symbol I guess to the left in this country and maybe to some of our critics overseas. But the fact is it's a very well-run facility. The Red Cross is down there all the time checking on it; reporters are free to go down, members of Congress and so forth, to look at it and see what kind of facility it is. And the fact is it's first-rate.

The other key thing that people forget is that we've got a couple hundred very bad actors down there. We've been through, several times, a scrub of the population in Guantanamo. And a good many more have been returned than we still hold, have been returned to their home countries. Now, out of that group, some number has, in fact, gone back onto the battlefield against us.

So we've not been, I think, especially harsh in terms of the judgments we've made. We have let some people go, and we erred a bit on the side obviously of -- in letting the wrong people go on a few occasions. But now what's left, that is the hardcore.

Leave aside the many questionable assertions and focus on the Cheney claim that they can't release more people because some of the already released people have subsequently engaged in terrorism. Further leave aside the issue of whether it was Gitmo itself that produced the desire to engage in terrorism. The Pentagon has given some numbers:

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that 61 former detainees from its military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, appear to have returned to terrorism since their release from custody.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said 18 former detainees are confirmed as "returning to the fight" and 43 are suspected of having done in a report issued late in December by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

No details have been provided. One telling detail would be the country to which the detainees were released. Because there's been a de facto policy that "friendly" countries get their detainees out while "unfriendly" or "awkward" ones don't. Friendly meaning in particular countries in the Gulf -- from where former detainees might have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan to take up the struggle.

So the real issue is that once you've decided to lock people up potentially forever, you lose any rational basis to decide if you're going to let any of them out. And thus criteria like diplomatic awkwardness start to matter, even if they don't help in predicting the likelihood of being a terrorist.

Once there's a specific date by which the place has to be closed, as there will be when Barack Obama takes office, minds will start to concentrate on the actual individual characteristics of each detainee, and not the crock-of-shite "evidence" used to lock them up and whether or not one of Cheney's oil buddies lobbied to get some of them out.

UPDATE 23 JANUARY: Note the relevance of the above to the case of Said Ali al-Shihri, alleged 2nd in command of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula following his release from Gitmo. He is a Saudi national released to Saudi Arabia. It's strange how a failure of a release under the Bush policy is being used as an argument against a policy change!

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