Some Americans may think they’re looking tough by refusing to allow any Guantanamo Bay detainees to enter the United States, whether as prisoners to face trial or as people who were incorrectly swept up – like the Chinese Uighurs – and have been deemed no threat to U.S. security.
President Barack Obama and some Democrats may think they’re acting smart in pandering to these fears by proposing extra-constitutional “prolonged detention” for Islamic militants (Obama) or by joining the Republican-led NIMBY chorus of “not in my backyard” (such as Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Jim Webb of Virginia).
But the real-life consequence of this panic is to make the United States – and President Obama – look weak in the eyes of the world, and that weakness is already having negative effects.
For instance, with Americans unwilling to let even the Uighurs onto U.S. soil, other countries are balking at requests that they take other detainees who have been judged not a threat.
“If the U.S. refuses to take these people, why should we?” said German parliamentarian Thomas Silberhorn. “If all 50 states in America say, ‘Sorry, we can’t take them,’ this is not very convincing.” [Washington Post, May 29, 2009]
Beyond exacerbating the difficulty of relocating Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared of wrongdoing, the political firestorm against accepting any inside the United States is undermining Obama’s foreign policy in other ways, according to intelligence and diplomatic experts whom I’ve spoken with in recent days.
The image of America as “scaredy-cat nation” – and of Obama’s perceived inability to get even a Democratic-controlled Congress to approve $80 million for closing down Guantanamo – have emboldened foreign leaders who have new reason to doubt the new President’s toughness.
According to these sources, the undercutting of Obama on Guantanamo has had repercussions from Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resisting pressure on settlements and peace talks, to North Korea, where recalcitrant communist leaders responded to a U.S. demand for dismantling their nuclear program by conducting a test nuclear explosion.
One foreign intelligence source said Obama would have been better off showing his command by shutting Guantanamo down immediately rather than promising to do so within a year and letting the Republicans figure out a way to turn the issue against him.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell made a similar point on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 24, criticizing Obama for not moving faster on closing Guantanamo and “frankly giving enough time to opponents of it to marshal their forces as to why we shouldn't do this."
The U.S. news media also has contributed to the hysteria. The New York Times published a misleading article on May 21 about the findings of a Pentagon study, prepared in the last month of the Bush administration, claiming that one in seven of the 534 detainees released from Guantanamo have “returned” to militant activities.
While playing up the one-in-seven number, the Times buried deep in the story the fact that the Pentagon report was based on flimsy or secret evidence and that only a handful of the supposed recidivists had actually done more than talk tough or associate with undesirables.
Only five “have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts,” the Times reported near the end of the story. That would be fewer than one in 100, not one in seven.
After the Pentagon report was officially released on May 26, analysts Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann reviewed the data and concluded that the Pentagon’s “numbers are very likely inflated” because the Pentagon included ex-prisoners who were “suspected” of having engaged in militant activity and others whose acts weren’t aimed at the United States or its allies.
“Bizarrely,” Bergen and Tiedemann wrote in a May 29 op-ed, “the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release. ...
“In the end, the Pentagon has given out the names of only 12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts. This is about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released. ...
“It seems fair to say that the much-hyped 14 percent figure is likely a large overstatement of former Guantánamo inmates who have taken up arms.”
It also would seem fair to say that the Pentagon doesn’t know if even the 4 percent had “returned” to militant activities or had been radicalized by their long incarcerations and harsh treatment at Guantanamo.
Nevertheless, the one-in-seven figure highlighted in the original New York Times article and cited by former Vice President Dick Cheney in his May 21 speech defending the Bush administration’s “war on terror” fed the panic of many Americans about accepting even cleared detainees like the Uighurs.
One of the fictions of this “scaredy-cat nation” is the myth of perfect security, essentially a willingness to trade the principles of liberty upon which the United States was founded for some promise of safety.
This point has been at the heart of Cheney’s “no half-measures” approach to the terrorist threat, what has been called his “one-percent doctrine” of treating even a one-percent risk from terrorism as a certainty.
But the logical flaw to this doctrine is that reacting to unlikely dangers as certainties almost guarantees more dangers, not fewer.
For instance, invading Iraq to eliminate a tiny risk that Saddam Hussein might help al-Qaeda has killed 4,300 American soldiers, spared al-Qaeda’s leadership in their hideouts along the Afghan border, strengthened Iran as a regional power, and spread anti-Americanism across the volatile region, including inside nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In other words, reacting to every hypothetical one-percent threat may sound reassuring to frightened Americans but the policy is almost certain to make the situation worse.
Another emerging risk from the furor about admitting Guantanamo detainees is that President Obama is made to look weak at just the moment he must face down foreign leaders over the need to change their policies in ways that may enhance U.S. security.
For instance, if leaders in Iran or North Korea see evidence that Obama can be pushed around on national security matters back home, it could influence their behavior in resisting U.S. demands about their nuclear programs.
Similarly, an allied nation like Israel, whose leaders don’t want to make the concessions that Obama deems crucial for reducing Middle East tensions, will be inclined to drag its feet. Other allies will throw up their hands at Obama’s request that they help resettle freed Guantanamo prisoners, possibly forcing the President to recant on his promise to close that controversial facility.
In short, the desire for perfect security, as reflected in the panic over bringing some Guantanamo inmates into the United States, not only would mean the sacrifice of America’s founding principles but might well make the American people less secure.
Often the safest move is to accept some risk and to act bravely.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 29, 2009.