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The Guantanamo Dilemma By: Kathy Shaidle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, November 20, 2008


When Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency he repeatedly promised to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, where hundreds of terrorist suspects have been held since the beginning of the War on Terror. As recently as last Sunday, he told 60 Minutes that he intended to keep his promise. "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that,” Obama said, adding that the planned closure was “part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.”

Obama’s position on Guantanamo was just one plank in a broader platform to revamp American counterterrorism policy. Earlier this year, Obama said that he supported legislation that would have required the CIA and other agencies to subscribe to guidelines in the Army Field Manual, whose rules on interrogation practices are much stricter than those followed by the CIA. In effect, Obama promised to ban the practice of using more coercive interrogation methods on terrorism suspects. (Although the CIA does not officially disclose its interrogation tactics, the most controversial of these methods, known as “waterboarding,” reportedly has been banned by the U.S. government since 2003.)

Guantanamo’s critics found much to admire in Obama’s pledges. Indeed, some urged him to go one step further and use his executive powers to mandate new interrogation standards. However, sources inside the Obama transition team have been hinting to reporters that some promises to close Guantanamo Bay may have to be broken. Not only that but the Wall Street Journal, citing a “current government official familiar with the transition,” reported on November 11 that, “Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.” This is not the kind of “change” that Guantanamo’s foes were seeking.

Why the apparent change of course? As president elect, Barack Obama is now privy to the same intelligence briefings as President Bush. It is entirely possible that he now appreciates the dangers posed by Guantanamo’s detainees in a way that he didn’t while running for office. For instance, according to some reports, as many as 36 former Gitmo detainees have gone on to participate in terrorists attacks upon their release from the facility. It may be that Obama, like so many presidents before him, will be forced to adjust his policies to match the newly available evidence. “Now Obama has to live with these decisions,” the conservative commentator Ed Morrissey observes, “and not simply snipe from the sidelines.”

That great power comes with great responsibility is a view also gaining currency on some parts of the Left. Having achieved an election victory, Obama’s supporters are now asking themselves the same questions they’ve been reluctant to consider until now. For example, were Gitmo detainees moved from Cuba to the United States, where would they be held? What if some escaped? If tried and acquitted in regular courts, would they be free to stay on American soil? If they were deported to their home countries, would they not face far worse treatment than anything they have faced in Guantanamo? To such questions, it turns out, there are no easy answers.

As a result, even some liberal thinkers are beginning to raise pragmatic considerations. Thus civil liberties lawyer David C. Cole, a longtime critic of the Bush administration, now admits that “you can’t be a purist” and issue a blanket ban on indefinite detention without trial. After all, there is nothing “un-American” about that – the system has long allowed for indefinite detention of, for example, the criminally insane without trial.

Nor is the issue of coercive interrogations as clear-cut as Guantanamo’s critics once made out. Ed Morrissey notes that “forcing the CIA to adhere to the Army Field Manual would have done much more than forbid waterboarding, which the CIA stopped using in 2003 anyway. It went as far as blocking the CIA from using barking dogs to intimidate detainees.” Asks Morrissey: “If you could save one life by having a dog bark at a detainee, would you do it?” Such are the uncomfortable considerations that President Obama will have to take into account.

Of course, there remain those who see closing Guantanamo as the be-all and end-all of American foreign policy. Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, has called for Obama to honor his campaign promises on Guantanamo and interrogation tactics. “By exercising his authority and acting quickly,” Holt has said, President Obama “will begin to restore our moral leadership on the issue and repair some of the harm that has been done to our international reputation.”

To his credit, the president-elect now seems to recognize that reality is more complicated than campaign rhetoric. But questions remain about his fundamental understanding of the War on Terror. Peter Schweizer, a former member of the Ultraterrorism Study Group and now a Hoover Institution research fellow, told FrontPage that Obama will “undoubtedly change America’s approach to fighting the war on terror” – and not necessarily for the better. The president-elect “has said before that he thinks we need to treat this as a ‘law enforcement issue,’” said Schweizer. “Last time I checked there was a substantial difference between burglars and Middle Eastern terrorists. We need to destroy our enemies, not guarantee their rights.”


Kathy Shaidle blogs at FiveFeetOfFury.com. Her new book exposing abuses by Canada’s Human Rights Commissions, The Tyranny of Nice, includes an introduction by Mark Steyn.


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