Closing Gitmo may be more complicated than it seems

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:15 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

Having spent the previous fortnight cruising the Panama Canal and points west, a pleasant venture in which the sole detraction was being beholden to CNN and the New York Times editorial interpretation of the news, I returned in time for the inauguration of our 44th president. As a matter of interest, the last time I transited Panama was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in November 1962, when the canal was U.S. Property.

As an American, I was gratified once again to be able to view the peaceful and festive celebration of the installation of a new president for whom neither I nor millions voted but who owns the good wishes and prayers for success from virtually all of us. While it may appear an overly extravagant ceremonial exhibition to some, the throwing of a national party every four or eight years seems a not unreasonable price to celebrate a fundamental freedom.

Unfortunately, following the ball(s), the chariot reverts to pumpkin status and the work of government begins anew. Not surprisingly, among the first orders of business for President Obama is the disposition of the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility for enemy combatants captured in the War on Terror. Gitmo, as the prison is commonly known, has long been the 800-pound gorilla created by the antiwar left and aided and abetted by the mainstream media.

Purely as a matter of symbolism over substance, the president signed an executive order calling for the prison’s closing within one year, fulfilling a campaign promise to one of his more vocal constituencies. To his credit, realizing there are serious complications to consider, he has agreed publicly that the closure might take a bit longer than a year.

The hysteria quotient of the anti-torture and diminished reputation worldwide of the United States prophets of doom notwithstanding, a quick closure of Guantanamo is beyond the parameters of simply executing an executive order. Of the 245 or so detainees remaining there, many are far too dangerous to be released here or in their home countries. And since oft-quoted “expert” opinions claim that many if not most are merely peasants who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, who is comfortable rendering that decision?

I won’t dwell on the implications of torture or the guilt or innocence of those detainees except for personal experience and/or knowledge of such matters. There are arguable differences of opinion as to what constitutes torture and what are acceptable interrogation measures. As one who has benefited from intelligence gained through interrogation and who is intimately familiar with the techniques employed in Survival Evasion Resistance (SERE) training, mine is a more reasoned and less emotional approach. The unsupervised abuses by a handful of Army reservists at Abu Ghraib can hardly be equated to a government torture policy.

Moreover, I have enough firsthand experience with those incarcerated to know that not one among them is guilty and that each has suffered maltreatment (torture) on a regular basis — if one is naive enough to accept their accounts as gospel. And, when one is apprised of al-Qaida training manuals instructing those captured to complain early and continually of mistreatment while being disruptive and uncooperative, warm and fuzzy relationships are seldom forged between captor and captured.

Those too dangerous to be set free, along with the 60 prisoners cleared for release but not considered safe from persecution or acceptable from whence they came, must be relocated elsewhere, which presents yet another dilemma. Among the locations suggested for relocating these prisoners are military facilities such as the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the Defense Department's sole maximum security prison.

Kansas can be expected to balk at this solution as will other states nominated, inasmuch as the prisons are integrated in the community and are potential terrorist targets, unlike the isolated and defensible Guantanamo. Adding the 120 days suspension of hearings and the uncertainty of continuation of the military tribunals to the mix merely compounds the legal, logistical and timely solution to a self-inflicted problem.

Admittedly, excesses have occurred in treatment of detainees as there is no known repeal of the law of human nature. And it would be the epitome of naivete to expect President Obama to renege on a pledge to a highly vocal anti-Gitmo constituency to shut the place down. Nevertheless, this is far from a routine undertaking — the relocation, trial in military or civil jurisdiction and final destination of prisoners are all factors that require detailed exploration.

For those vocally condemning the extended timeline, are you willing to accept an accused terrorist as a neighbor or as a houseguest?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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