Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terrorism, Detention and the Politics of Fear

Obama Mounts Defense of Detainee Plan:

WASHINGTON — President Obama delivered an impassioned defense of his administration’s anti-terrorism policies on Thursday, reiterating his determination to close the prison at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba in the face of growing Congressional pressure and declaring that America will remain strong if it stands by its basic precepts.

Moreover, he said that transferring some Guantánamo detainees to highly secure prisons in the United States would in no way endanger American security.

Speaking at the National Archives, which houses the Constitution and other documents embodying America’s system of government and justice, the president promised to work with Congress to develop a safe and fair system for dealing with a particularly thorny problem: what to do with those Guantánamo detainees who, for one reason or another, cannot be prosecuted in civilian or military courts “yet who pose a clear danger to the American people” and therefore cannot simply be released.
Of course, just how much "clear danger" they pose is being debated.
An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are engaged in terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.

To relocate the 240 prisoners now at Guantánamo Bay, administration officials have said the plan will ultimately rely on some combination of sending some overseas for release, transferring others to the custody of foreign governments, and moving the rest to facilities in the United States, either for military or civilian trials or, in some cases, perhaps, to be held without charges.

But the prospect that detainees might be moved to American soil has run into strong opposition in Congress. To show its misgivings, the Senate voted on Wednesday, 90 to 6, to cut from a war-spending bill the $80 million requested by Mr. Obama to close the prison, and overwhelmingly approved a second amendment requiring that a threat assessment be prepared for each prisoner now at Guantánamo to address what might happen on release.
They would be shipped back to their native soil, in all probability. And even assuming the "1 in 7" ratio is correct, that's a recidivism rate of 14%, substantially lower than our own "home grown" criminal population, which has a recidivism rate of 66%.

A student today in class said that even 1 in 7 terrorists trying to kill members of our military is unacceptable, and I would agree. But equally unacceptable is the fact that members of our military are, statistically, more likely to be killed by one of their fellow U.S. citizens here at home than they are on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq. All citizens are more likely to suffer the same fate, statistically.

Nevertheless, the disproportionate response to "concern" over what to do with these couple of hundred detainees at Gitmo is more about the politics of fear than it is reality. Politicians continue to whip up fear, warning that bringing these people to U.S. soil would threaten American lives, and there are even ludicrous suggestions that the country with the most people incarcerated on the planet doesn't have institutions secure enough to hold these people.
In news conferences, speeches and debates this week, lawmakers from both parties, as well as the director of the FBI, have sounded alarms about placing detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in U.S. federal prisons, where they could launch riots, hatch radical plots or somehow be released among the populace.

"No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. to live among us," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said. "Terrorists were detained there for a reason -- to keep Americans safe!"

"Part of what we don't want is them be put in prisons in the United States," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday, before saying he was open to changing his position. "We don't want them around the United States."

The fact that we have and continue to hold convicted terrorists on U.S. soil seems to escape our "enlightened" leaders.

In fact, 23 convicted terrorists with ties to al-Qaeda -- including the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a conspirator in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- reside in a single federal prison in Florence, Colo., with little public notice.

For many of the most serious terrorists and violent criminals, Justice Department and prison officials impose special administrative measures, which include sharply curtailing lists of approved visitors and closely monitoring mail. The inmates also are kept in solitary confinement and allowed few contacts with detainees inside their facility and even fewer outside sources of information.

There is even the bizarre assertion that the U.S. can't hold people in "preventive detention" because it violates our constitution.

President Obama told human rights advocates at the White House on Wednesday that he was mulling the need for a “preventive detention” system that would establish a legal basis for the United States to incarcerate terrorism suspects who are deemed a threat to national security but cannot be tried, two participants in the private session said.

Human rights advocates are growing deeply uneasy with Mr. Obama’s stance on these issues, especially his recent move to block the release of photographs showing abuse of detainees, and his announcement that he is willing to try terrorism suspects in military commissions — a concept he criticized bitterly as a presidential candidate.
Government has always had the ability to detain people preventatively under civil commitment laws, so that's nothing new either.

In fact, if most of this sounds old that's because it has nothing to do with security, imprisonment, terrorism or Constitutional rights. This is about fear, played out on both sides of the political aisle, and political capital.

I wrote a post back in January entitled "RIP: War on Terror" under the hopeful belief that this old canard would die a slow death politically. But as the misdeeds (and possible war crimes committed) from the past eight years come to light, and the push back continues, I would expect this "war" to be around for quite a long time.

Afteral, nothing sells soap (or votes) like fear.


ranger74 said...

I think the releasing of the Bush era “torture memos” by President Obama wasn’t much more than a political jab. I was glad to see that the President decided that nothing good can come from releasing further photos of alleged torture but what then was the point of releasing the memos in the first place? Dick Cheney claims that the administration is withholding additional memos that provide information outlining that “thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands” of lives were saved by using enhanced interrogation techniques . Whether or not Cheney realizes he is not Vice President anymore, what harm can come from release of these alleged additional memos? If there is proof that further attacks were uncovered due to these interrogations, that would look very badly for the current administration. However, if the documents do not prove evidence of Cheney’s claims, why not release them anyway and prove him wrong?

Todd Krohn said...

My understanding is the CIA denied Cheney's request to declassify the memos which would supposedly prove him right because of pending litigation (this mess will probably be tied up in the courts for decades).

So we may never know what the memos say, but I'm not sure the documents he requested would be bad for the Obama administration. Even if it could be shown harsh interrogation techniques provided actionable intelligence, we already know from FBI testimony recently before congress that they were able to get the information faster and more accurately using professional, rapport-building methods of extraction.

The point being, whether or not Cheney is right that it "worked" is irrelevant if laws were broken.

We'll see.