Closing Guantanamo Costs Money; But There Is an Alternative

Created: December 23, 2009 08:53 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

When the Obama administration announced its plan earlier this month to transfer military commissions-bound Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, two senior officials held a conference call to tell reporters how the plan would work. Before Guantanamo could be closed, they said, the federal government had to purchase Thomson; and before purchasing Thomson, the Obama team had to ask Congress to appropriate the money for the sale. Both vowed to work with lawmakers to get the cash. Neither anticipated any problems. That was December 15.

According to Charlie Savage in The New York Times this morning, that plan’s hit a big legislative snag: Congress is balking on the $150 million for buying Thomson. It’s going to take time and money to upgrade security measures at the prison anyway, and the longer Congress stalls, the longer the upgrades will take, and the longer Guantanamo will stay open. This despite strong support from Illinois’ governor and senators. The next major opportunity to get the money will be a supplemental bill to fund the Afghanistan “extended surge” — oh yeah, and remember how President Obama said he wasn’t going to fund the wars through supplementals anymore? — and that won’t be ready for a vote until the spring. Savage estimates Guantanamo will stay open until at least 2011, long after Obama’s original January 2010 deadline for closure.

Still, there’s an alternative. Remember, the Thomson facility isn’t for all Guantanamo detainees. It’s for those to be tried in military commissions — military commissions that, as my colleague Daphne Eviatar wrote yesterday, remain deeply, structurally flawed. Other detainees — including the most dangerous one, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — will be tried in civilian federal courts. There is no rigorous process outlined by the Obama administration to determine who gets tried where, something that has led civil libertarians to conclude that the stronger cases go to federal court and the weaker ones go to the commissions, where it’s easier to secure a conviction.

Well, if Thomson hits a snag, the administration could just do what the civil liberties community wants and either charge the detainees in civilian courts or deport or release the ones it doesn’t have solid evidence to charge. The federal jurisdictions where the detainees are charged have the responsibility to detain and then imprison them post-conviction. Problem solved. That is, if the administration wants to solve the Guantanamo problem and not mutate it.