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Column: Get Serious About Closing Gitmo Prison

A hunger strike is spreading at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp. The main reason, as the military has acknowledged, is the growing sense of frustration and despair among the detainees. As Gen. John Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command, explained to the House Armed Services Committee recently, detainees “had great optimism that Guantanamo would be closed. They were devastated ... when the president backed off. ... He said nothing about it in his inauguration speech. ... He said nothing about it in his State of the Union speech. ... He’s not restaffing the office that ... looks at closing the facility.”

The hunger strike is the Guantanamo detainees’ cry for attention. Why should Americans care? After all, haven’t members of Congress told the public that the detainees are terrorists who would kill us in our sleep if they got the chance? That is the reason lawmakers have given for enacting legislation that has made it virtually impossible to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, to the United States or anywhere else. The American people have been led to believe that the detainees are all too dangerous to release or transfer, and that we must keep them at Guantanamo to protect our security.

That line may play well politically, but it is simply not true, and it is costing us dearly.

One hundred and sixty-six men are still held at Guantanamo. Fewer than 20 are “high-value detainees,” men who were transferred to Guantanamo from other locations several years ago and are scheduled to stand trial for war crimes. The others were, at most, low-level functionaries or people swept up and sold for bounties in the confusing initial stages of the fog of war in Afghanistan. Many simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, more than half of them — 86 — were cleared for release more than three years ago by a special presidential task force composed of top U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials. Some were cleared even before that, during the Bush administration. Because of congressional restrictions, however, they remain locked up. And unlike prisoners in the United States, these men are held virtually incommunicado, with no opportunity to see their families. Those not initially cleared were promised review hearings almost four years ago, but not one has occurred. They are understandably frustrated.

Even beyond the terrible injustice to them, the United States is paying a very high price for all this. Guantanamo is our nation’s most expensive prison, with an annual operating budget of almost $177 million, more than a million dollars per year for each detainee, and almost $90 million a year just for the 86 prisoners who were cleared for release three-plus years ago. The nearly $300 million spent jailing the latter group the past three years and the annual cost of keeping Guantanamo open amount to a lot of money that could be used to save jobs and services being cut as a result of the so-called sequester. And the costs of keeping Guantanamo open probably will increase. The military has said its Cuban base is in dire need of upgrades and has requested nearly $200 million for capital improvements to keep Guantanamo functioning as a prison. Where is the congressional concern with those costs?

But the cost to our nation is more than economic. Many who have been charged with protecting our national security, including former defense secretary Robert Gates, former national security adviser Dennis Blair, former CIA director David Petraeus and former secretary of state Colin Powell, have pointed out that Guantanamo actually hurts U.S. security. As Sen. John McCain emphasized during his bid for the White House, when he “strongly” favored closing Guantanamo, the prison is a negative symbol that serves as an important recruiting tool for terrorists. President Obama himself has said that Guantanamo has probably “created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.”

“There is also no question,” Obama said in a May 2009 speech, that Guantanamo has undermined “America’s strongest currency in the world” — our “moral authority.”

It is time to get serious about closing Guantanamo. The president should appoint someone in the White House responsible for coordinating efforts to close this prison, and that person should work closely with the congressional leadership of both parties to get the job done. Pandering to fear for political expediency should no longer be tolerated. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, our government’s policies must be based not “on fears and follies” but on “reason.”

Thomas Wilner was counsel of record to Guantanamo detainees in Rasul v. Bush and Boumediene v. Bush, the two Supreme Court cases that established detainees’ right to habeas corpus.