The next president will be commander-in-chief of the armed forces; he or she will also likely be warden-in-chief of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The prison, on territory leased from Cuba, holds about 300 men whom the Bush administration considers dangerous enemies of the United States.
On Wednesday morning the justices of the Supreme Court heard 90 minutes of arguments in the latest attempt by Guantanamo prisoners to win their freedom.
As the prisoners and the Bush administration await the court’s decision, which will come by next spring, the presidential contenders must realize that President Bush’s successor will inherit hundreds of detainees.
Even if, by some turnabout in his policy, Bush were to decide to close the Guantanamo prison, two problems would remain for his successor: Should the United States hold the detainees indefinitely and if so, where?
“The question becomes for this country: Where do you put them? There are some people at Guantanamo Bay that were probably captured in a net thrown too wide, but there are some people at Guantanamo Bay that need to die in jail because they’re so dangerous,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Presidential contenders make pledges
Guantanamo serves as a defining issue in the 2008 race, with the Democratic contenders pledging to close Guantanamo and most of the Republican contenders saying they’d continue using the facility to hold the alleged enemy combatants.
A foreign policy advisor to Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., explained his view this way: "Closing Guantanamo would give Obama the credibility to ask our friends and allies to help us deal with this problem by taking those prisoners we wish to transfer under appropriate conditions. Then, Obama would establish a faster and more effective process for assessing the status of detainees."
He said Obama would "prosecute any detainee who has committed crimes and ensure that the trials are conducted with the legal procedures mandated by U.S. law, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the Geneva Conventions."
Some Democrats — and Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain — say they’d move the detainees to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
That’s the proposal made by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa in a bill which Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Joe Biden and Sen. Chris Dodd have co-sponsored.
Sen. Hillary Clinton has been less specific as to a new location.
She has co-sponsored a shut-down-Guantanamo bill offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The Feinstein bill orders the detainees to be moved to an unspecified military or civilian detention facility in the United States.
Feinstein, who has endorsed Clinton for president, said Tuesday, “there aren’t the votes to move it to closure. It takes 60 votes” in the Senate.
Addressing the safety issue
Asked whether her idea of moving the detainees to military or civilian prisons in the United States would make Americans safer, Feinstein replied, “I don’t think it’s a question of safety, I think it’s a question of American principles being carried out. I think Americans are safe if they (the detainees) are in Guantanamo, and I think Americans are safe if they’re in maximum security facilities in the United States."
She added, "We did an inventory and we know there are adequate beds in maximum security military prisons and maximum security federal prisons.”
She mentioned the federal prison in Florence, Colo., as one suitable site for the Guantanamo detainees.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the “Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado, houses offenders requiring the tightest controls.”
Among the Republican presidential contenders, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has taken the boldest approach, saying in a debate last May, “Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo.”
Romney didn't explain his rationale for doubling the size of the facility. He seemed to imply that there are a lot more al Qaida operatives who his administration would find and put there.
But the Bush administration has gradually released about 470 of those once held at Guantanamo, sending them to countries ranging from Australia to Tajikistan.
McCain finds himself at odds with most of his Republican contenders on the issue.
“I would announce on the day of my inauguration that we are closing Guantanamo Bay,” said McCain.
He added in a recent interview with PBS talk show host Charlie Rose that “Guantanamo Bay could be the Four Seasons (Hotel) right now” in terms of its amenities.
But the current conditions and treatment of those held there, he argued, are irrelevant because the site “has become a symbol, along with Abu Ghraib, and along with torture and rendition, that has hurt America’s image throughout the world.”
Is it as bad as people say?
His rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, argues that the image of Guantanamo does not reflect the reality.
Guantanamo, he said last summer in an interview with CNN, is “more symbolic than it is a substantive issue because people perceive of mistreatment when in fact there are extraordinary means being taken to make sure these detainees are being given really every consideration.”
He added, “Most of our prisoners would love to be in a facility more like Guantanamo and less like the state prisons that people are in in the United States.”
Both Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have raised the specter of Guantanamo prisoners being released and wreaking havoc.
The Defense Department has estimated that of the approximately 470 detainees who have been released or transferred, about 30 have gone to the battlefield in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere to fight American or NATO forces.
“If we let somebody out and it turns out that they come and fly an airliner into one of our skyscrapers, we're going to be asking how come we didn't stop them," Huckabee said.
The repatriation problem
Giuliani has raised another practical problem: Some of the detainees’ countries of origin have been unwilling to repatriate them. Feinstein also acknowledged this problem on Tuesday.
With considerable hyperbole, Giuliani said in September, “We can't close Guantanamo because nobody will take the people there. The president is attempting to move those people to other countries, and those countries are intelligent enough to say, ‘We don't want people as dangerous as this in our country.’”
Perhaps previewing an argument he might make in a debate against a Democratic candidate, Giuliani said, “So what are you proposing? That we release them in New York or in Boston or in Los Angeles? So there's a reality to this that the liberal media and some of the Democratic politicians seem to try to avoid.”
Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, too, has raised the alarm about the potential of Guantanamo prisoners coming to the United States.
In July he offered a non-binding sense of the Senate resolution that did not specifically address the possibility of detainees being jailed at Fort Leavenworth, as McCain, Biden, and Dodd have suggested.
It urged that Guantanamo prisoners “should not be released into American society, nor should they be transferred stateside into facilities in American communities and neighborhoods.”
McConnell made a point of criticizing Feinstein’s bill. “Most Kentuckians would not want al-Qaida housed down the street from them,” he said. “I would assume citizens from other states feel the same way.”
But not only did Feinstein vote for the McConnell resolution, so did Clinton and almost every other Democratic senator, including every presidential contender, except Sen. Barack Obama who was absent for the vote.
The final tally was 94 to 3, with only Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Robert Byrd of West Virginia voting ‘no.’