Upon hearing that President Obama plans to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, the first thought that occurred to me was: where will terrorists go for their lemon chicken? One detention center librarian has said “a few [detainees] are kind of hooked on” the Harry Potter series; will Obama at least detain them long enough to finish The Deathly Hallows? For that matter, where else will these young jihadists ever enjoy access to a several thousand-volume library? How can you keep a boy in the compound once he’s seen Gitmo?
Such a flippant reaction, of course, minimizes the very real consequences of The New Era of Irresponsibility. Terrorists have had no trouble retaining their foot soldiers. “Reformed” detainee Said Ali Al-Shihri is presently the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. A total of 61 former detainees have returned to the battlefield, or 12 percent of the 510 released under the more stringent measures President Obama is discarding, which deemed them “innocent” and unlikely to threaten American interests if set free. That makes the following report from the Associated Press particularly chilling: “Former detainees…around the world welcomed President Barack Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.”
Thursday’s triple-threat exective orders — closing Guantanamo Bay no later than one year from now, shuttering rendition “black sites,” and binding interrogators to the Army Field Manual for high value detainees — threaten to destroy the security apparatus that has kept this nation safe for seven years. Where will the detainees be sent? What legal rights might they incur as a result? And how can we assure not a single American life is lost as a result of releasing dozens, if not hundreds, of dangerous fundamentalist warriors?
These questions are not totally lost on the Obama administration; they were simply ignored in the stampede to curry world favor. A senior White House official assessed the remaining Gitmo detainees, saying, “There’s one category that we can transfer. There’s one category that we can try. The third category can’t be transferred, can’t be tried.” What will be done with these? As Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ appalling responses showed during his first press conference, he has no idea. Not to worry, Barack Obama has a solution: a government committee, likely headed by a man who believes “waterboarding is torture,” which will make recommendations within six months. Typically, leaders analyze their plans ahead before acting, assess the possible consequences against the intended goals, and then decide whether they are worth pursuing. In this case, the goal of “cleaning up our image” trumped the consequences of possibly releasing the 21st and 22nd hijackers. (Ironically, Obama’s actions were praised by the same Democrats who criticized President Bush for not having “a withdrawal strategy” from a war before invasion.)
On rendition, the same White House official remarked, “There are some renditions that are in fact justifiable and defensible, and there are others that have been mistakes and are not justifiable.” Yet the president chose to destroy the network of permanent prisons that might be important in those “justifiable and defensible” cases.
Although Obama surrounded himself with military men for his signing photo op, those in positions of authority disagree with the spirit of his order. The Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Michael McConnell, has said, “Does the [intelligence] community need interrogation techniques beyond what’s in the Army Field Manual? In my opinion we do.”
Objective evidence bears him out. Lt. Gen. Randall “Mark” Schmidt testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2005 that when enhanced interrogation techniques were applied to 20th hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani, he “proved to have intimate knowledge of [terrorists’] future plans” and provided “extremely valuable intelligence.” CIA chief Michael Hayden testified last February that two of the three al-Qaeda terrorists waterboarded, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, provided the agency with one-quarter of all human intelligence it had about al-Qaeda. Maybe our armed forces can safeguard our Republic with only 75 percent of the puzzle. Maybe not.
True, Obama’s executive orders hold out the possibility of exceptions in virtually every one of these situations, although no one, including the president, seems to know under what circumstances those exceptions might be invoked, if ever. The potential for loopholes can be read as a sign of moderation, or a mere nod to reality. But it is easier to maintain a state of readiness than to assume the appropriate conditions can be recreated the instant they are needed. Special permission for harsh techniques may be granted or temporary rendition sites may be located, in time — but that is not good enough if interrogators are acting against a ticking time-bomb. And as the nation tragically learned before September 11th, interrogators often do not know when they are acting against a ticking time-bomb.
At the signing ceremony Thursday, Obama said, “The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.”
The actual message Obama sent is that the United States now places “world opinion” above its own well-being; that the commander-in-chief of the War on Terror is willing to grant the other side tactical advantages; that the leader of the free world acts on image without thinking out the practical consequences his actions might have for his country or his soldiers. The only silver lining is the president’s hypocrisy. Thursday’s signing ceremony was the triumph of style over substance, of emotional masturbation over hard-headed analysis, of the politics of guilt over the duty of self-defense. It was certainly no way to inaugurate a new era of responsibility.
This article originally appeared as the weekend lead on Friday, January 23, 2009, on FrontPage Magazine.