After Guantanamo

Posted July 09, 2009, at 5:53 p.m.

Even before he was elected, Barack Obama pledged to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

That promise has met a predictable roadblock: What to do with the more than 200 men who are still held there? Although several communities have said they’d welcome the men, the public is strongly opposed to moving them to U.S. soil, prompting lawmakers to introduce legislation to make transferring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. more difficult.

The way to resolve this impasse is to take a clear-eyed view of the danger these prisoners are likely to pose and balance that against the costs, especially in terms of diminished international views of the U.S., of keeping the detention facility open. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the detainees have the right to challenge their detention in U.S. courts so the legal reasons for keeping them in Cuba are largely moot.

In May, House Republican leader John Boehner introduced the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, which would require state legislatures and governors to approve the transfer of Gitmo prisoners to facilities in their states. While strict requirements should be put in place, prohibiting the incarceration of these men in U.S. prisons is shortsighted.

As criminal justice professor and Bangor native Eric Williams points out, plenty of supposedly dangerous men — including shoe bomber Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — are housed at a federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo. None of them has escaped or is likely to.

Mr. Williams, a professor at Sonoma State University in California, said the prison’s former warden, Robert Wood, told him he is far more worried about the gang members than the 40 terrorists held there.

Prisons, especially in rural parts of the country, have become a source of jobs and revenue for local economies. So several towns jumped at the chance to house the Guantanamo detainees.

In Hardin, Mont., the City Council unanimously approved a measure to bring the prisoners to their community. The town had built a prison with hopes of attracting 300 jobs to the economically depressed area. The Two Rivers Detention Center stands empty and the town’s bonds are in default.

“Bringing suspected terrorists to Hardin may not be the most palatable option, but right now it’s the only one we have,” Greg Smith, executive director of the Two Rivers Authority, wrote in a recent Newsweek essay.

“Obama has set a deadline of January 2010 for the relocation of detainees — which means they are definitely headed somewhere. Why not Hardin?” he asked.

It is a question that deserves an answer based on a real assessment of risk, not political grandstanding.

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