May 22nd 2009

Transferring Some Guantanomo Detainees to the U.S. Will Actually Make America Safer

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

By launching the bruhaha over transferring some Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., the Republican Right has hit another low on the demagoguery meter. Some Democrats in Congress themselves wilted in the face of the onslaught. Luckily, President Obama did not.

The fact is, of course, that transferring some of the Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. will actually make America safer.

The bloviators on Fox News paint pictures of terrorists running free in the streets once they have been released by hapless courts, or escaped from prison. Of course that's ridiculous.

As President Obama pointed out in his Thursday National Archives security speech, there are hundreds of terrorists, murderers, rapists and other terrifying types that have been tried and convicted by American courts and held safely behind bars. In fact, no one has ever escaped a federal "super max" prison. The Washington Post reported this morning that "thirty-three international terrorists, many with ties to al-Qaeda, reside in a single federal prison in Florence, Colorado, with little public notice."

Obama quoted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who said the idea that we can't find places to put 350 detainees in the United States is simply not rational.

Neither, by the way, is the focus of some Republicans on the report showing that 14% of the 500-plus detainees that have been released thus far from Guantanamo have engaged in new acts opposing the United States.

First, of course, these people were released by the Bush Administration or the Courts - not Obama. They were released mainly because they shouldn't have been in detention in the first place. Many were the products of bounty hunters who received rewards for turning people in. And that was so even though former Guantanamo Commander, General Geoffrey Miller (later of Abu Graib fame) assured Members of Congress that all of the detainees in Guantanamo were "bad guys." That, of course, is why we have due process: to determine if the people that the General Miller's of the world think are "bad guys" really are.

Second, you'd expect some of those released to "reoffend." It's not too surprising that some of the folks we held without trial for years might be a bit miffed at the U.S. Unfortunately Guantanamo itself probably created a number of future terrorists who weren't inclined in that direction at all when they were first swept off the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bosnia. Finally, let's remember that almost two thirds of all those released from U.S. prisons re-offend. That the number from Guantanamo is only 14% is probably a tribute to the fact that most detainees had no business being detainees.

But why take the "chance" by bringing additional Guantanamo detainees to our shores? Because it is critically important to our national security that we close Guantanamo - and such a step is probably necessary to make that possible.

There is little doubt that the existence of Guantanamo - coupled with the Bush administration's use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" --were powerful symbols used to recruit more terrorists than have ever been held in Guantanamo itself.

Guantanamo helped to convince young Muslims that the West does not respect them or their culture -- and that all of our talk about democratic values is just so much hypocrisy.

Fundamentally, the failure of the Bush-Cheney policy was rooted in the fact that they ignored a critical component of human nature: more than anything else people want a sense of meaning and identity - and their corollary: respect.

You can lock up and kill all of the Muslim "terrorists" you want. But if your approach humiliates, disparages and enrages young Muslims who may never even have thought before about becoming "terrorists" themselves, you will lose the "War on Terror" - you make Americans less safe.

In 2007, John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed published Who Speaks for Islam?, a book based on Gallup's World Poll - the largest study of Muslim attitudes ever undertaken. The polling shows that Muslims have a profound sense that their culture, and the religious traditions that in many ways define their sense of personal identity, have been disrespected by Americans and former American leadership. This feeling is particularly pronounced among the segment of respondents the study characterized as "radicalized Muslims" - those most likely to support or join groups like al-Qaeda.

To many young "radicalizable" Muslims, Guantanamo is one of the most power symbols of that disrespect.

And to the people of our allies and potential allies around the world, Guantanamo is a symbol that America abandoned its democratic values. Its continued existence makes it more difficult for them to work with us to protect our mutual security.

In order to close Guantanamo we have to move the detainees somewhere. We'd like our allies to take a number of those detainees, but that is wholly unlikely if we refuse to move any into the United States ourselves. After all, the U.S. created this problem - they didn't.

Just as important, a number of the current detainees should be tried by America courts for violation of the law. For that purpose they must be moved to the United States.

This debate played out yesterday as part of dueling speeches by President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney.

All that remains of Cheney's "undisclosed location" is his marginality on the American political landscape. In his speech he demonstrated openly the recklessness that so weakened America during his eight-year reign.

Most fundamentally, Obama's speech distinguished America's security policy from the Bush-Cheney years in two critical ways:

1). Obama asserted that our values are our most important national security asset. These values not only include America's commitment to human rights and due process of law, but a commitment to respecting other people and treating them the way we ourselves would want to be treated. Obama understands clearly that nothing will do more to help us win the underlying battle for the hearts and minds of young people across the world than the application of that kind of moral force.

2). Obama utterly discarded the Bush-Cheney doctrine that in matters involving national security there is a "Unitary Executive." This view was most eloquently elaborated by that great philosopher Richard Nixon as, " if the President does it, that makes it legal." In other words, Obama reaffirmed our traditional belief that this is a "nation of laws" and that no one - not even the President - is above them.

We are now discovering the many ways that Bush and Cheney used the theory of the "Unitary Executive" to eviscerate our values and disregard the Constitution. It will take some time for President Obama to clean up the mess they created - including Guantanamo.

In the meantime, Progressives should be thrilled that Cheney has taken it upon himself lead the rearguard Neo-Con battle to defend their failed national security policy. Cheney's personal unpopularity with the voters is a test to Abraham Lincoln's view that you can't fool all the people, all the time. In fact, from the Progressive point of view it is hard to imagine a better choice for General in Chief of the Conservative forces than Dick Cheney. To paraphrase his former partner: Bring him on.

Robert Creamer is the author of the recent book "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

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