President Obama’s remark that some Guantanamo detainees might be transferred to American prisons has prompted an extraordinary, and intellectually feeble, storm of protest. Former Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off the campaign when he said, during his May 21 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, that “to bring the worst terrorists inside the United States would be a cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.” Sitting lawmakers—especially those from states such as Kansas and Colorado where federal prisons are based—raised the same specter and shouted the ancient cry of principled rebellion: “Not In My Back Yard!”
It makes one wonder: Do any of these legislators know who’s in their backyards already, with no apparent detriment to their constituents’ daily lives, much less the nation’s security?
According to data provided by Traci L. Billingsley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists. Some of these miscreants have been locked up here since the early 1990s. None of them has escaped. At the most secure prisons, nobody has ever escaped, period.
As recited in Congress and on cable-news talk shows, the fears of moving Gitmo prisoners here seem to be these: that the terrorist prisoners might escape (statistics to the contrary be damned), that they might convert their fellow inmates with jihadist propaganda, that other members of al-Qaida might infiltrate the surrounding communities (to do what—spring them?), or that their presence might sow panic in those communities.
Maybe these people don’t understand what life is like in these “supermax” prisons. Take ADX Florence, the supermax in Colorado—”the Alcatraz of the Rockies“—that serves as the home to Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheikh” who organized the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Zacarias Moussaoui, one of the Sept. 11 plotters; Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber; Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber”; and Terry Nichols, who helped plan the Oklahoma City bombing, to name a few.
These are all truly dangerous people, but it’s not as if they run into one another in the lunch line or the yard. There is no lunch line; there is no yard. Most of the prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. For one hour, they’re taken to another concrete room, indoors, to exercise, by themselves. Their only windows face the sky, so they have no way of knowing even where they are within the prison. Phone calls to the outside world are banned. Finally, the prison is crammed with cameras and motion detectors. Compartments are separated by 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors; the place is surrounded by 12-foot-high razor-wire fences; the area between the wire and the walls is further secured by laser beams and attack dogs.
The Bureau of Prisons operates similar facilities—also full of terrorists and murderers—in Terre Haute, Ind.; Marion, Ill.; and elsewhere. And the Defense Department operates a few dozen military prisons scattered around the country, some of which would be suitable for housing the exiles from Guantanamo.
One such prison would be the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. In a statement released this month, Republican Rep. Jerry Moran, who represents the district containing the barracks, protested that it would make a “poor choice” for holding Gitmo detainees. Leavenworth is home to the Command and General Staff College—the Army’s “Intellectual Center,” as Moran put it—and hauling in jihadists would “disrupt” its “primary mission of military education.” The prison itself, he added, is “largely a medium-security facility for military prisoners,” and it would be unfair to endanger the 3,000 Americans—the Army students and their families—who live on base.
Moran’s statement is misleading. The staff college—which, by the way, is attended by the Army’s top officers (Gen. David Petraeus ran the place in between his tours in Iraq)—is quite separate from the prison barracks. And while some of those barracks are “medium-security facilities,” others are maximum-security. According to a fact sheet that a spokesman at Fort Leavenworth e-mailed to me, the maximum-security barracks hold about 450 inmates—and have room for at least another 60. Five of those inmates are on death row for committing multiple murders, in many cases for killing fellow soldiers.
If any of these killers managed to escape, he could probably blend into the population of eastern Kansas more easily than a Saudi or Afghan terrorist could.
The debate about what to do with the Gitmo prisoners sidesteps the broader strategic issue of restoring America’s image, and thus its influence, in the world.
President Obama is hardly alone in emphasizing this point. At the Senate judiciary subcommittee’s May 13 hearing on U.S. torture policy, Philip Zelikow, a former counselor at the State Department, testified that his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urged President George W. Bush to shut down Guantanamo as early as 2005 and finally persuaded him by July 2006. It is often forgotten that Bush publicly declared his intention to close the facility the following September. Other former officials say that almost every top civilian and military official in the Bush administration agreed with this declaration—except Cheney and his entourage, who blocked every attempt to implement it.
Last week, in a little-noticed interview with Radio Free Europe, Petraeus endorsed Obama’s commitment to shutting down Guantanamo. “Doing that in a responsible manner, I think, sends an important message to the world,” he said, “as does the commitment … to observe the Geneva Convention[s] when it comes to the treatment of detainees.”
There’s something distasteful about the whole debate. The critics of transferring Gitmo prisoners to the United States are the same people who call on the Afghan and Pakistani leaders to crack down, at some risk, on their homegrown insurgents more fervently—and the same people who barely take notice when our armed drones mistakenly kill civilians in the crossfire of the war on terror.
But when decency requires that we take measures that appear to involve a little extra risk, they turn frantically parochial and refuse. And in this case, the measures required don’t really involve risk—only responsibility. Surely they know that prisons are one thing that America does really well. Exactly what are the critics afraid of?