Civil Liberties

Top 5 Myths About Closing Guantanamo

Obama has promised to close Guantanamo within a year. So lets debunk some of the most ill-informed myths that might stand in the way.

On his second day in office, President Obama took a bold step away from the Bush administration and signed an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within one year while suspending all military tribunals for six months. Obama said that the United States was sending the world a message that the "struggle against violence and terrorism" would be fought "in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals." Each day that Guantanamo remains open is another day that U.S. troops are put in further unnecessary danger. One U.S. military officer wrote in the Washington Postthat he "learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo." Obama has taken the first crucial step in shutting down this stain on America's reputation. As the Center for American Progress has outlined, the next steps -- including arranging for trials in federal or military courts, finding homes for detainees who can't return to their native countries, transferring detainees who will stand trial into the United States, and establishing a lawful military detention regime for the small number of remaining detainees -- won't be easy, but they're not impossible. Nevertheless, conservatives are coming up with a number of inaccurate -- and often outright ludicrous -- excuses for why Guantanamo needs to remain open. The Progress Report debunks some of the most ill-informed myths.

MYTH #1 -- GUANTANAMO IS A GREAT PLACE TO BE: Conservatives often try to argue that life at Guantanamo is just fine. Reacting to Obama's executive order, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) said that detainees there receive "more comforts than a lot of Americans get." In December, Vice President Cheney argued that Guantanamo "has been very well run." Neither of these claims are true. The Washington Post recently revealed that the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to prosecute detainees concluded that Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured by the U.S. military at Guantanamo. The detention center was so poorly run that Obama administration officials are now finding out that Bush officials never kept comprehensive case files on many detainees.

MYTH #2 -- DETAINEES ARE TOO DANGEROUS TO BRING INTO THE UNITED STATES:This myth is the one that conservatives cite most often. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has said that transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil "will endanger American lives." Yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, Boehner said that it would be "irresponsible" to transfer these "terrorists who have attempted to kill Americans." This morning, Fox and Friends took pictures of various terrorists and went around to Pennsylvania residents and asked them if they wanted these people living in their "backyards." However, U.S. federal prisons are already home to dozens of the most dangerous terrorists the world has ever known. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald has written, "Both before and after 9/11, the U.S. has repeatedly and successfully tried alleged high-level Al Qaeda operatives and other accused Islamic Terrorists in our normal federal courts -- in fact, the record is far more successful than the series of debacles that has taken place in the military commissions system at Guantanamo." In fact, there have been 145 terrorist convictions in federal courts since 9/11. Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) has said that he wouldn't necessarily oppose transferring detainees who are convicted terrorists headed to trial to the state's "Supermax", a role that the prison is already playing and that CAP recommended in its report. Rep. John Murtha (R-PA) has also expressed a willingness to bring some detainees into his district, stating, "I mean, they're no more dangerous in a prison in my district than they are in Guantanamo."

MYTH #3 -- DETAINEES WILL RECEIVE ALL THE BENEFITS OF U.S. CITIZENS: One of the most absurd myths has come from Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who asked last week, "What happens then if another judge grants him asylum in the United States and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is on a path to citizenship?" King added that they could then "tap into welfare." Yesterday on CBS's Face the Nation, Vice President Biden addressed these ridiculous claims. "If they are not a U.S. citizen or if they are not here legally, then, even if they were released by a federal judge, they would not be able to stay here in the United States," said Biden. "They would be sent back to their country of origin. They would not stay here." CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen has also noted, "When terrorists have been tried in the United States, they go away forever. The embassy attackers in '98 who blew up two American embassies, they are in prison for life without parole."

MYTH #4 -- 61 RELEASED DETAINEES HAVE RETURNED TO THE BATTLEFIELD: One conservative talking point that has been especially effective at making its way into traditional media reporting is that 61 "of the people that were incarcerated at Guantanamo and then released have returned to the battlefield, have engaged in further terrorist activities," as CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr said yesterday. The Associated Press has made a similar claim. But in fact, as Media Matters has reported, "according to the Pentagon, the 61-detainee figure includes 43 former prisoners who are suspected of, but have not been confirmed as, having 'return[ed] to the fight.'" Bergen has also noted that "returning to the fight" could simply mean writing a negative op-ed. Mark Denbeaux, Director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research, has been tracking the Bush administration's claims. He told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, "Their numbers have changed from 20 to 12 to seven to more than five to two to a couple to a few -- 25, 29, 12 to 24. Every time, the number has been different. In fact, every time they give a number, they don't identify a date, a place, a time, a name or an incident to support their claim."

MYTH #5 -- WE SHOULD JUST HOUSE THE DETAINEES AT ALCATRAZ: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been a vocal supporter of closing down Guantanamo. Therefore, conservatives have retaliated by proposing that she take the detainees. "Let our good friends in San Francisco deal with these deadly combatants," said Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO). Boehner and Rep. Bill Young (R-FL) have suggested Alcatraz prison, which sits in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. This proposal is a joke. Alcatraz shut down as a federal prison in 1963. It became a national historic landmark in 1986. Apparentlty, conservatives are unwilling to house detainees in maximum security federal prisons but are happy to put them up in a tourist attraction. As Pelosi said yesterday on ABC's This Week, "Alcatraz is a tourist attraction. It's a prison that is now sort of like a -- it's a national park."

-- by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers