Wrong and Expensive
By Stephen Tuttle | April 17, 2021
Tucked away in the southeast corner of Cuba is a natural harbor wedged between hilly terrain. Called Guantanamo Bay — guantanamo means “land between two rivers” in Taino, the language of indigenous Taino people — we leased it from the Cubans in 1900, and the arrangement was codified in a 1903 treaty.
It is home to our Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the oldest such “overseas” base in our inventory. It's about 45 square miles and tucked beneath mountains, an enclave separated geologically from most of the rest of the island. The more than century-old treaty is still valid, and we pay Cuba just more than $4,000 annually, a paltry sum for truly prime property. It should be noted the Cuban government has been trying to remove us from their island ever since their revolution of 1959, to no avail thus far.
Guantanamo Bay is also the site of our infamous detention camp, a military prison for “enemy combatants” and other terrorism suspects since 2002. It's where we've sent what we considered the worst of our captured enemies away from the prying eyes of the American media and all their questions and Freedom of Information requests, away from our rule of law, away from the rights of the accused, away even from the basic rights accorded prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention. It's where, by our own admission, we regularly tortured prisoners. It's where we held military tribunals in which the defendants were not allowed counsel and, in some cases, weren't even allowed to see or hear the evidence against them.
We claimed that trying some prisoners, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, in U.S. courtrooms could lead to more acts of terrorism. So we cleverly claimed Mohammed and other captives were enemy combatants entitled to no rights at all.
According to the Department of Defense, about 780 prisoners have processed through GTMO. Some 731 have been released and returned to their countries of origin, or to some country that would accept them; nine prisoners have died in custody.
Of the 40 still there, 11 have been charged with war crimes, and three have been cleared for release but remain in custody. The other 26? They have been charged with no crime, have had no hearings, will not be prosecuted, but, for reasons not revealed, have not been cleared for release.
President Obama tried to close the GTMO prison, but the hawks of both parties in Congress quickly made that impossible. They made it illegal to house any GTMO detainee in any U.S. prison, pretty much negating any trial on U.S. soil. Not content with that silliness, they also made it next to impossible to transfer detainees anywhere by stripping away all funding for such transfers, even for those who haven't been accused of or charged with any wrongdoing.
In addition to the stains on our morality and erasure of much of our Constitution, this detention center comes at a price. By the time all the costs associated with running the GTMO detention camp are tallied, we're spending somewhere north of $500 million annually. That's about $13 million per prisoner, which makes it the most expensive prison on the planet and perhaps in history.
We could have simply charged and tried them here in the U.S., where we've had no problem conducting plenty of terrorism trials without any hint of retaliation. All of it a lot cheaper, too; the cost of housing a typical federal prisoner is about $35,000 annually as opposed to GTMO's $13 million.
In fact, we've tried 969 terrorism defendants here since 9/11, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). We have about a 99 percent conviction rate, mostly for “material support” of terrorism, and mostly — about 36 percent — fools caught in FBI stings.
More than 500 of those convicted have already been released from custody, most with no follow-up supervision or surveillance. It would suggest we didn't find them to be much of a threat. About 360 charged with terrorist activities are still in custody, including 69 awaiting trial.
To be sure, none of those tried in the U.S. have been masterminds of much of anything. But we could have at least given a real hearing, in the U.S. and under our laws, to those GTMO detainees we've accused of nothing. You'd think they'd at least deserve to know why they're still being held.
An extralegal prison that included torture and the complete deprivation of what we'd consider basic rights was all the rage in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But it was wrong then, has been wrong for the last 19 years, and continues to be both wrong and ludicrously expensive.
It's past time we shuttered the prison at GTMO, distributed those convicted of actual crimes to federal prisons, released or gave hearings to those accused of nothing, and pledged to avoid falling into this darkness again.