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The story of Guantanamo

IT'S understandable that President Obama wants to remove the stain of Guantanamo from his administration and the U.S.

IT'S understandable that President Obama wants to remove the stain of Guantanamo from his administration and the U.S.

What was once a place of hope has become associated with the ignominy that characterizes the Bush administration throughout the world. But I think the president's decision to close the prison there was hastily made and misguided. So I was relieved when the Senate turned down the $81 million sought by the White House May 21, 90-6.

A little background

Guantanamo is a 12-by-six-mile bay, with inner and outer harbors, 400 miles southeast of Miami on the south side of Cuba near its eastern coast, facing Haiti. Off its southern border is Jamaica.

In 1903, after the Spanish-American War, we leased 45 square miles of the outer harbor and surrounding land as a naval base. In 1934, we renewed our lease with Cuba, stipulating that both parties must agree to terminate the new lease. Given the aid we gave Cuba for its independence, it seemed only fair. The bay is surrounded by the Sierra Maestra hills on the west and the Cuzco on the east. The inner harbor is used by Cuban ships, presumably for commercial purposes. On land, a 17 1/2-mile fence separates the base from Cuba proper. It is manned round the clock by both sides.

The base's primary purpose is to serve as a strategic logistics base for the Atlantic Fleet, and a base for drug interdiction in the Caribbean. Besides a commissary, hospital and dental clinic, it has meteorological and oceanographic commands providing the fleet with invaluable data.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower cut relations with Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro's alignment with communism, Cubans flooded the base seeking refuge. In 1964, when the U.S. fined Cuban vessels for fishing in Florida waters, Castro cut off the water supply to the base. A desalinization program let it become independent of outside water. It generates its own electricity, 800,000 kilowatt hours daily, about 25 percent of which comes from four 80-foot wind turbines.

During the violent coup in Haiti in 1991, more than 34,000 Haitians crossed the Caribbean seeking relief. For its humanitarian action, the base received the Navy Unit Commendation and Joint Meritorious Awards.

During the Afghan war, the Bush administration rounded up what it considered especially dangerous prisoners who had valuable information, and needed a safe and legally impenetrable spot for them. Since Guantanamo was technically outside the U.S., the administration maintained it was outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

It also argued that the 770 prisoners there didn't fall under the protection of Article IV of the Geneva Convention since captured al Qaeda and Taliban fighters didn't wear uniforms, or any distinctive insignias on their clothing identifying them as combatants.

The legal precedent during World War II that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had six captured German saboteurs executed as unlawful combatants was also cited. But on Jan. 29, 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that these prisoners were entitled to minimal protection under the Geneva Convention.

Questionable methods

Irrefutably, the methods used to extract information from the prisoners at Guantanamo were inhumane and not consistent with the ideals and values of the United States.

Nor, as voiced by the author and al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen, and others, does torture produce valuable information.

While the practices employed by the captors at Guantanamo Bay may not be as severe as the Inquisition's, they were as wrong and an inhuman stain on the honor of our country.

Yet the Bush administration, for all its mistakes, may not have been completely incorrect about the dangers posed by these detainees. Of about 240 released already, one, Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi, was involved in a suicide attack in Mosul on March 2008, Saeed Shihri is reported by CNN to have led the attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen one year after his release.

THE CIA maintains that at least 18 of those released are confirmed to have made terrorist attacks, with another 43 suspected of involvement in terrorists attacks.

As Crispin Black of wrote: "No doubt that the U.S.'s vengeful and politicized intelligence system has banged up a fair number of innocents over the years, but quite a few of those languishing in Gitmo deserve to be there or would be very dangerous if they ever got out."

So closing Gitmo isn't the answer, unless Obama wants to consider reopening Alcatraz. These prisoners are highly dangerous and pose a threat not only to the U.S. but citizens wherever in the world they will be released.

Passing off our prisoners to other nations is definitely not the answer either. As they say, it's comforting to have our friends close, but wiser to keep our enemies closer.

Nor is the $81 million price tag to close the prison likely to be money well spent. Its base is intrinsically valuable, and it's a given that there will be other detainees to be interviewed. It should be kept open and an international organization like Amnesty International or the International Red Cross should be permitted to interview the detainees to verify that these any un-American practices have been stopped.

Abandoning Guantanamo Bay will not rid us of the stain that Bush and Cheney have placed upon us - but fixing it will. *

Michael Eichert is a Philadelphia writer.