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Opinion

America can't afford the real cost of Guantánamo

The consequences of ignoring Guantánamo, its abuses, and its hunger strikers are foreboding – for the prisoners and for America. President Obama must release prisoners with no case against them, move the rest to US courts to be charged and tried, and finally close the detention facility.

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The Defense Department said in 2009 that 18 released detainees are “confirmed” and 43 are “suspected” to have participated in subsequent terror attacks after their release from Guantánamo. But members of the media and other observers have challenged the reliability of those numbers on several grounds.

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Some have pointed to flaws in the Pentagon’s criteria for “confirming” and “suspecting” terrorist involvement. Others have noted inconsistencies in the names of those held at Guantánamo compared with those listed as returning to terrorism after release – attributed to confusion over similar, common Muslim names.

Whatever the risk of released prisoners “returning to the battlefield,” it would seem outweighed by the more obvious risk that Guantánamo poses: It serves as a recruitment poster for Al Qaeda. The assessment of security risks must also take into account the ongoing damage to America's moral standing in the world – damage that will greatly increase if and when the Guantánamo hunger strikers start dying from their fast.

An even more significant long-term cost may be the potential for blowback from legal precedents being set by the Guantánamo prison and the harsh treatment of its prisoners. Such precedents not only undermine global respect for international human rights and the rule of law, but also create a hostile legal environment for Americans who may someday find themselves incarcerated by an enemy force.

While Americans naturally want to minimize the risk of another 9/11, we need to ask ourselves whether the indefinite detention of prisoners, most of whom were rounded up in response to US bounty offers, will really enhance our national security – or impair it.

We should question whether our security needs, as assessed today, trump the traditional American values of justice and the rule of law. Only a lawless society would condone indefinite detention, forced-feeding, and solitary confinement.

As taxpayers, we should ask ourselves whether Guantánamo is worth the hundreds of millions of dollars it has already cost – and will cost if the prison is renovated, as the US military recommends.

The National Defense Authorization Act allows Obama to transfer prisoners out of Guantánamo in the interest of US security. He must exercise that authority to release the prisoners who have no legal case against them – hopefully in time to quell the hunger strike. And notwithstanding the objections of Congress, Obama should announce that the other detainees will be brought to the US for trial. Lastly, he must enforce his executive order of 2009 by closing the Guantánamo prison forever.

The consequences of ignoring Guantánamo, its abuses, and its hunger strikers are foreboding – for the prisoners and for America. 

L. Michael Hager is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization in Rome.

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