Standing before the press last Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., argued that this is no time to be releasing detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Opportunistically, she cited the recent massacre in Paris and deteriorating security in Yemen, which she oddly described as “the wild, wild West for terrorists.” She warned that U.S. officials suspect or know that roughly 30 percent of the men released from Guantanamo have returned to the fight.
“We need a timeout,” Ayotte said, flanked by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Lindsey Graham, S.C., who are co-sponsors of a bill that would prevent the Obama administration from releasing Guantanamo prisoners who have never been charged and who have been cleared for release by officials based on a thorough risk analysis.
Coming from Ayotte, a defense hawk who takes extreme positions on national security matters, this misguided proposal is unsurprising. But its rollout was particularly troubling for a few reasons. The recidivism rate the senators cited failed to take into account how much it has decreased in recent years. Perhaps most disappointing, though, was McCain’s endorsement of the bill, which represented a striking turnaround for a former prisoner of war who has championed closing the prison at Guantánamo.
In November 2013, McCain, backing a failed initiative that would have authorized transferring some Guantanamo detainees to the United States, read out loud on the Senate floor a letter from 38 retired generals and flag officers who supported shutting the facility.
“Guantanamo is a betrayal of American values,” the former military officers wrote. “The prison is a symbol of torture and justice delayed. More than a decade after it opened, Guantanamo remains a recruiting poster for terrorists, which makes us all less safe.”
Those words are as true now as they were then. President Barack Obama pledged to move swiftly to shut down the prison during his first presidential campaign. Winnowing down the detainee population from a high of 680 in 2003 to 122, with the recent transfer of five Yemeni men to Oman and Estonia, has been extremely difficult because of opposition in Congress and an inability to repatriate certain prisoners to their home countries.
Still, the Obama administration has made significant headway, and the recidivism rate of former detainees has dropped considerably. Out of the 88 prisoners who have been released since January 2009, six are known to have become involved with terrorist or insurgent groups, and one is suspected of having done so, a 6.1 percent recidivism rate. During the Bush years, more than 33 percent of the 532 detainees released were confirmed or suspected to have rejoined the fight, according to statistics released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last September.
The Obama administration is looking for countries willing to take 54 prisoners who have been cleared for release by a team of U.S. national security agencies and is evaluating how many of the remaining detainees could be safely freed. Only 10 of the prisoners currently at Guantánamo, which was established in January 2002, have been prosecuted; seven of them are facing charges in military commissions, and three have been convicted and are either serving sentences or awaiting sentencing.
It is long past time for U.S. officials to do the right thing: prosecute suspected terrorists in U.S. courtrooms and shut down a wartime prison that has deservedly brought the United States international scorn. Besides moral and strategic considerations, shutting Guantanamo would make fiscal sense. Currently, the United States spends $3 million a year to hold each detainee.
The alternative, as articulated by Graham, is a travesty. “This is a war without end,” he told reporters. “You don’t release prisoners until the war is over. I would argue the war is in many ways just starting.”