BOULDER, Colorado -- On Friday, the Obama administration announced that they would be revamping the system of military tribunals established in 2006 to try terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The announcement seemed to come as a reversal of pledges the president had made to try the detainees in federal courts or established courts-martial.
Apparently, the government is worried that the previous administration's systematic program of torture and denial of basic rights may hinder prosecution in normal American courts. But basically Obama is making the same argument that Bush officials did: the pesky Constitution keeps getting in the way of fighting the Global War on Terror. But the decision may also be linked to the problems the government is having in finding a suitable home for the remaining detainees once the prison at Guantanamo is closed in 2010. Military tribunals would allow for speedier prosecution of the remaining detainees, meaning fewer would have to be relocated when the camp is closed.
Last month Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the US Senate that of the 240 remaining detainees, there could be as many 100 that would not be tried or could not be transferred to another country, which means they will likely have to be relocated to US soil. This has whipped many communities that host federal prisons into a panic, and members of Congress have been scrambling to try and prevent these prisoners from being transferred to their districts. Apparently, these people are so diabolical and terrifying, if transferred to the US, they will likely immediately escape and set up the new Caliphate, with its capital in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Let us not forget that the candidates for this transfer are those detainees that the government will not even bother to prosecute, meaning that they are probably poor Pakistani farmers that their home government does not want to take back, lest they hasten the toppling of the government. But they are being portrayed as if they are General Zod and his minions, people so dangerous that they had to be cast into the Phantom Zone for all eternity in Superman 2.
There are some very unseemly and dangerous characters who will be searching for a home when Camp Delta is mercifully shuttered, but the notion that they will escape is ludicrous. The Justice Department does not publish yearly statistics on prison escapes, but the numbers that are available are remarkably low. According to data compiled by Richard F. Culp and published in The Prison Journal in 2005, in 1998 (the last year for which data were available), there were 0.4 prison escapes for every 100 prisoners in America's state and federal prisons and jails. That year, there were 6,530 escapes, the vast majority of which were prisoners who had gone AWOL during an authorized leave or walked off of a minimum security work site. Nearly all were recaptured in short order, and this was out of a prison population of 1.8 million inmates.
In the federal system, the figures are even more encouraging. Though official data are unavailable, I did a Lexis-Nexis search of US newspapers, which revealed that in 2008, there were four escapes from federal prison. Three of the fugitives escaped from minimum-security facilities, while the fourth was in a medium-security prison. All but one of the escapees has since been apprehended - only Eddie Davidson, who walked off Colorado's Florence Prison Camp in July, evaded capture. Tragically, just a few days later, he was found dead, along with his wife and daughter, the result of a murder-suicide. In 1999, there was only one escape from federal prison, and that was the first in four years.
The other puzzling thing about this controversy is that the federal government has already constructed a facility tailor made for terrorists right here in the U.S. and A. The Communication Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana (dubbed "Little Guantanamo" and mentioned here before) already houses a couple dozen or so "terrorists," most of them of Middle Eastern descent, in a medium-security wing. If the CMU is good enough for John Walker Lindh or the Lackawanna 6, why not Khalid Sulaymanjaydh Al Habayshi? Granted, the facility would have to be enlarged, but no one is afraid that Terre Haute will be overrun by escaped terrorists.
But not every prison town in America turns into a bunch of NIMBYs when the feds try and move Islamic terrorists there. Hardin, Montana, has actually volunteered their brand new 460-bed prison for the Guantanamo refugees, which currently sits empty and deeply in debt. Montana's senators have tried to put the kybosh on the plan, but one town official said, "Somebody has to stand up and put [the Guantanamo prisoners] in their backyards. It's our patriotic duty." He added, sensibly, "You have hardened criminals in jail all around the state, you have sexual offenders. When they're in jail, they're not a whole lot different."
Well, perhaps the Guantanamo detainees are not all sex offenders, but the notion that they are too dangerous to ever set foot on American soil, or be allowed access to due process in America's courts, is ludicrous. To defend this move as shrewd or prudent gives the president too much credit. I am tired of politicking when it comes to civil liberties and basic Constitutional rights, and Obama has backtracked on what was, for me, a key promise in his campaign. So much for the kinder, gentler GWOT.
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