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Getting out of Gitmo

Opposition to housing detainees in U.S. prisons is irrational. How can we ask others to do what we won't?

September 30, 2009

If President Obama reneges on his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in January, an important reason will be the hysterical opposition in Congress to transferring some inmates to the United States. The obstructionists should pay attention to some common-sense comments by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who noted in a television interview over the weekend that there are maximum-security prisons in this country from which no one escapes. She added that she has no objections to imprisoning some detainees in California.

Some might object that it's easy for Feinstein to endorse the idea of relocating detainees here because the government would send them only to the "supermax" federal prison in Colorado. But that's not necessarily true. If Guantanamo detainees were transferred to the United States proper, the federal government could contract with state prison officials to hold suspected terrorists at maximum-security facilities, such as Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City (though prison overcrowding in California would make that a long shot).

Regardless of whether detainees might be held in California, Feinstein's larger point is indisputable. Even so, in May, the Senate voted 90 to 6 to block the transfer of detainees to the United States and denied the administration $81 million it had requested to close Guantanamo. Some in the majority, including Feinstein, cited the administration's lack of a detailed plan for the closure. But many senators uncritically echoed the fears of some of their constituents that transferring detainees would put U.S. citizens in danger.

It isn't just members of Congress who have encouraged irrational fears. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III mused in congressional testimony earlier this year that transferring detainees to U.S. custody might lead to the radicalization of other inmates -- unlikely if "high-value" detainees were kept in solitary confinement -- and provoke attacks on U.S. soil. After Mueller's remarks, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. promised that his concerns would be taken into account. Still, Mueller's comments provided cover for members of Congress who are opposed to holding any detainees in this country.

Shuttering Guantanamo is essential to restoring the United States' image abroad. But it cannot be done unless those prisoners who can't be released are housed elsewhere. If this country doesn't take its share of detainees, how can it lecture other countries about their responsibility to help? In criticizing the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policy, Obama rightly said that "too often our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight." That is precisely what Congress must not do with Guantanamo.

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