Re-examining Guantanamo

Guantanamo has been at thecenter of intense political and security debates for the past decade, yet many commonly held perceptions of its detention operations and interrogations are not based upon the facts.

From the outset, Department of Defense officials characterized Guantanamo as the "least worst place" for holding al Qaeda and Taliban suspects picked up in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. It was far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, where the fighting raged. It was outside the United States, making it less prone to terrorist attacks.As foreign enemy combatants held outside the country, detainees were not entitled to the same legal protections granted to American citizens. These fundamental conditions have not changed.

What has changed is that Guantanamo became vulnerable in the courts and public opinion mainly because of misperceptions.Key factors included:

c Overstated abuse allegations: Isolated incidents of abuse were portrayed falsely as common through detainees who were instructed by al Qaeda training manuals to publicize such claims. These incidents were combined with ubiquitous photos of orange-jumpsuit-clad, hooded and shackled detainees at the primitive Camp X-Ray in the first three months of 2002, leading to an inaccurate portrayal of Guantanamo.

c Confusion and conflation: Facts of detention operations and interrogations at Guantanamo were often scant in public discourse and pop culture. Torture was never condoned, nor tolerated. Waterboarding was never used there. Critics equated Guantanamo conditions to Abu Ghraib abuse some 7,000 miles away, although they were separate and unrelated.

c Cynical press coverage: Most media focused reports on a handful of abuse incidents in the early years, countless unfounded abuse claims since, relatively few hunger strikers and a sea of detainee legal challenges. Despite more than 3,000 media visits, newspaper and television reports worldwide consistently used dated Camp X-Ray orange-jumpsuit photos throughout the decade as their stock footage to depict Guantanamo, though detainees were quickly moved to modern prisons modeled after facilities in Indiana and Michigan.

c Unsustainable legal construct: Endless court challenges and negative publicity over the rights of detainees to habeas corpus culminated in three Supreme Court losses from 2004 to 2008. Holding detainees as enemy combatants under a law-of-war construct until the end of hostilities without the legal protections of either prisoners of war or criminal defendants proved untenable, in particular after Sept. 11 began to fade from the public spotlight. Lower-court proceedings showcased defense-attorney portrayals of their clients as picked up by mistake, sold for bounties, innocent goat herders, etc. while capitalizing on every government misstep.

c Inadequate transparency: Years of withholding detainee names and case files resulted in insufficient releasable information for Guantanamo's public defense. Post-Sept. 11 government measures meant to safeguard against further attacks led to an extremely cautious approach in declassifying information, leaving little material for public education efforts.While critics stressed closure, none had viable options for alternatives. Repatriation and resettlement proved difficult because of security issues and human rights concerns in some countries.Recidivism, currently estimated at 20 percent and including al Qaeda and Taliban leadership figures, remains a major concern.

Thus, the question arises on the fate of its nearly 200 detainees still held. Simply moving them to the mainland accomplishes nothing other than creating a "Gitmo North." As the administration acknowledged, indefinite detention would continue for 50 to 100 detainees - those too dangerous to release yet not prosecutable. The legal basis to detain enemy combatants under the law of war remains the same, meaning they can be held until the end of hostilities. Such a facility and its surrounding area would be converted into symbolic and accessible targets to home-grown terrorists, attracting massive potentially violent protests.

Local economic benefits have been overstated, as up to half of the funds would be for temporary construction projects, while most residents would not qualify to be guards.Some argue that closing Guantanamo would diminish al Qaeda recruiting while fostering good will in Muslim countries. The attacks of Sept. 11, on the USS Cole and East African U.S. embassies prove otherwise, as they all predate detention operations there. Anti-U.S. propaganda in the Middle East is fueled chiefly by the presence of American troops in the region, combined with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Guantanamo pales in comparison to these much broader issues.Many perceptions of Guantanamo detention operations and interrogations are not based on reality, but on a misleading narrative shaped by Guantanamo's critics. Its reputation is undeserved, and its future should be re-examined.

J.D. Gordon, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and a retired Navy commander who served in the George W. Bush administration's Defense Department as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere.