Bush-era officials warn keeping Guantánamo open may be $6bn error

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A now notorious US Department of Defence photograph of detainees in orange jumpsuits at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Photograph: Shane T McCoy/PA

Only Bush ‘officials’ would make note of the cost rather than what actually took place in this hell-hole. JP

01 Feb 2018 | and   | The Guardian

US officials and military lawyers who helped set up and run the notorious prison at Guantánamo Bay have warned that Donald Trump risks repeating a $6bn mistake by keeping it open.

In the only major foreign policy shift announced in Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president signed an executive order to reverse Barack Obama’s eight-year effort to close the facility in Cuba – and predicted that “many” new inmates could soon be flown there.

But those involved in setting up the prison camp and running military tribunals there under George W Bush warned that the move would be counterproductive, draining money, stretching the military and acting as a recruiting sergeant for terrorist groups around the world.

“With respect to the Guantánamo military commissions, we have screwed them up so bad for so long that they are beyond redemption,” said retired Colonel Morris Davis,a former chief prosecutor of the military commissions set up in 2002.

“We’ve invested roughly $6.5bn on detention in Guantánamo and what has it gotten us? We wasted our money. These guys could have been housed in federal prison for a fraction of the cost. We have over a thousand troops that are dedicated to the detention operations that could be used elsewhere. We have squandered our credibility around the world in these trials,” Davis said.

The advocacy group Human Rights First estimates the annual cost of keeping a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay at more than $10m, compared with $78,000 at a Federal supermax high-security prison in the US.

The total number of detainees incarcerated at Guantánamo in its 16 years of existence is 780. Only three have been convicted there, and another, Ahmed Ghailani, was transferred to the US federal court and convicted for the 1998 east African embassy bombings.

More than 700 prisoners have been transferred to other countries. Of the 41 remaining inmates, 23 are being held for indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Davis, who was chief prosecutor from 2005 to 2007 – when he resigned over the use of evidence extracted under torture – recalls watching 14 “high value” detainees from CIA black sites around the world being taken off a plane at the Guantánamo airstrip in September 2006. Since then, only one of them, Ghailani, has been tried and convicted – and that was in a New York federal court.


“Here we are in 2018 and the other 13 men who got off the plane with him are still floundering in the system in Guantánamo,” the former military prosecutor said. “The real tragedy here is that the 9/11 victim families have needlessly been denied justice. This could have been over and done long ago, but for it becoming a political issue.”

In his new executive order, Trump gave his defence secretary, James Mattis, and other officials 90 days to develop a new plan for dealing with “unlawful combatants” detained on the battlefield.

The president said the US should “continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists – wherever we chase them down, wherever we find them and in many cases it will now be Guantánamo Bay”.

However, despite Trump’s campaign promise to fill Guantánamo with “bad dudes” his administration has so far been reticent about sending suspects there.

Last month, it delayed a decision on whether to prosecute a suspected al-Qaida member, a Sudanese national who has been held more than a year by United Arab Emirates forces in Yemen, and who had earlier been reported as being destined for Guantánamo Bay.

John Bellinger, a legal adviser in the Bush White House, said he thought that, given past failures, there would be institutional resistance to refilling the camp.

“I think President Trump’s order reversing President Obama’s order to close the prison is more of a political bone thrown to his conservative base than any indication he will change policy,” Bellinger said. “I suspect the Departments of Defense, Justice and State would oppose sending new detainees to Guantánamo.”

Alberto Mora, general counsel of the Department of the Navy from 2001 to 2006, expressed hope that Mattis, who persuaded Trump not to resume the use of torture, may also convince him not to send more inmates to Guantánamo, which Mora called “a ludicrous and extravagant waste of military manpower”.

But even if no more prisoners are sent there, Trump’s announcement itself had already caused damage said Mark Fallon, a former chief investigator at the defence department’s criminal investigation taskforce.

“Globally [Guantánamo] symbolises injustice, oppression and torture,” said Fallon, author of Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon and US Government Conspired to Torture. “And so when you see the president out there talking about expanding upon it, I’m just afraid that that it puts our troops in greater danger overseas and it jeopardises our national security.”

“I was a true believer,” Davis recalled. “I thought we had the opportunity to do justice in the way we could hold our head up and be proud of.”

When he took up the chief prosecutor job he told his staff: “I wanted us to do this in a way that our grandkids would look back at Guantánamo, the way we look back at Nuremberg.

“We had that opportunity and we squandered it.”

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