It is the other Guantánamo, an archipelago of federal prisons that stretches across the country, hidden away on back roads. Today, it houses far more men convicted in terrorism cases than the shrunken population of the prison in Cuba that has generated so much debate.I'll return to the recent lame-brained idea of using the military to round up American citizens within our own borders in just a second.
An aggressive prosecution strategy, aimed at prevention as much as punishment, has sent away scores of people. They serve long sentences, often in restrictive, Muslim-majority units, under intensive monitoring by prison officers. Their world is spare.
In recent weeks, Congress has reignited an old debate, with some arguing that only military justice is appropriate for terrorist suspects. But military tribunals have proved excruciatingly slow and imprisonment at Guantánamo hugely costly — $800,000 per inmate a year, compared with $25,000 in federal prison.
The criminal justice system, meanwhile, has absorbed the surge of terrorism cases since 2001 without calamity, and without the international criticism that Guantánamo has attracted for holding prisoners without trial. A decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, an examination of how the prisons have handled the challenge of extremist violence reveals some striking facts:
¶ Big numbers. Today, 171 prisoners remain at Guantánamo. As of Oct. 1, the federal Bureau of Prisons reported that it was holding 362 people convicted in terrorism-related cases, 269 with what the bureau calls a connection to international terrorism — up from just 50 in 2000. An additional 93 inmates have a connection to domestic terrorism.
¶ Lengthy sentences. Terrorists who plotted to massacre Americans are likely to die in prison. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, is serving a sentence of life without parole at the Supermax, as are Zacarias Moussaoui, a Qaeda operative arrested in 2001, and Mr. Reid, the shoe bomber, among others. But many inmates whose conduct fell far short of outright terrorism are serving sentences of a decade or more, the result of a calculated prevention strategy to sideline radicals well before they could initiate deadly plots.
¶ Special units. Since 2006, the Bureau of Prisons has moved many of those convicted in terrorism cases to two special units that severely restrict visits and phone calls. But in creating what are Muslim-dominated units, prison officials have inadvertently fostered a sense of solidarity and defiance, and set off a long-running legal dispute over limits on group prayer. Officials have warned in court filings about the danger of radicalization, but the Bureau of Prisons has nothing comparable to the deradicalization programs instituted in many countries.
¶ Quiet releases. More than 300 prisoners have completed their sentences and been freed since 2001. Their convictions involved not outright violence but “material support” for a terrorist group; financial or document fraud; weapons violations; and a range of other crimes. About half are foreign citizens and were deported; the Americans have blended into communities around the country, refusing news media interviews and avoiding attention.
¶ Rare recidivism. By contrast with the record at Guantánamo, where the Defense Department says that about 25 percent of those released are known or suspected of subsequently joining militant groups, it appears extraordinarily rare for the federal prison inmates with past terrorist ties to plot violence after their release. The government keeps a close eye on them: prison intelligence officers report regularly to the Justice Department on visitors, letters and phone calls of inmates linked to terrorism. Before the prisoners are freed, F.B.I. agents typically interview them, and probation officers track them for years.
None of this is new to those of us who have been studying the intersection of the War on Terror and our domestic criminal justice system for the past decade (gosh, was it that long ago, 2004, that anyone who dared frame the war on terror as an "intelligence/criminal justice matter" was branded as "weak and unpatriotic"?).
The article discusses the three federal supermax prisons (Florence, CO., Marion, Ill., and Terre Haute, Ind.) and why the creation of largely Muslim-oriented SMU's (special management units; segregation) may be creating more of a problem for internal security and prison staff.
But otherwise, as the article notes, most of the hardcore terrorists who have been convicted the last decade are never coming out, and the case that many of these so-called "material support" convictions/terrorists are really more pathetic than they are dangerous is well made.
Which brings us back to that wonderfully deliberative body the U.S. Senate, and its nearly unanimous passage of a bill that would authorize the U.S. military to round up "suspected terrorists" and detain them without counsel in detention facilities that would fall outside federal or state court review.
Written and planned in secret by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the newly minted NDAA contains three sections which collectively sanctions indefinite detention of alleged terrorists or ‘terrorist sympathizers’–anywhere in the world including the US– and designates the military the duty to arrest, imprison and interrogate without benefit of counsel,’ accused civilians here on Main Street.
Theoretically, armed squads of US soldiers might be knocking on your door in the dead of night to take away Auntie Mame for her alleged ‘terrorist’ activities—at the ACLU. This bill potentially allows for the blatant political prosecutions of any dissenter using the military as a bully club to instill deep fear in any who dare to question our government’s motives.
So, what's driving this madness, given the extraordinary ability we have to already deal with terrorists within our criminal justice system?
Matt Taibbi has an idea:
This confusion about the definition of terrorism comes at a time when the economy is terrible, the domestic government is more unpopular than ever, and there is quite a lot of radical and even revolutionary political agitation going on right here at home. There are people out there – I’ve met some of them, in both the Occupy and Tea Party movements – who think that the entire American political system needs to be overthrown, or at least reconfigured, in order for progress to be made.
It sounds paranoid and nuts to think that those people might be arrested and whisked away to indefinite, lawyerless detention by the military, but remember: This isn’t about what’s logical, it’s about what’s going on in the brains of people like Lindsey Graham and John McCain.
At what point do those luminaries start equating al-Qaeda supporters with, say, radical anti-capitalists in the Occupy movement? What exactly is the difference between such groups in the minds (excuse me, in what passes for the minds) of the people who run this country?
In other words, just in case "them crazy, dirty hippies" of the Occupy movement start gettin' serious in their civil disobedience (and for some reason, all the jackbooted local law enforcement cant' handle 'em), we got the military to come in and kick ass and take names.
Of course, this kind of stupidity comes about every few years or so since the War on Terror began. In 2006 they attached a similar rider to the 2007 NDAA which tried to repeal the Insurrection Act (1807) and the Posse Comitatus Act (1878), both of which specifically forbid the military from engaging in law enforcement activities within our borders.
But we're in election season right now, and as I've stated since birth, nothing builds political capital quite like creating bogeymen where none exist and scaring the sh!t out of people. And nothing scares the average voter more than being blown to bits in a act of terrorism (even though they are statistically more likely to die in an airline crash, which has odds similar to winning the lottery).
But facts are irrelevant in the partisan cesspool that D.C. has become. Supposedly Obama is threatening to veto the the 2012 NDAA because of this language, which would be a good idea.
But then, given his administration's stringent anti-terror prosecutions, mass deportations, and widespread use of imprisonment, Obama's probably thinking "I don't need the extra help, but thanks anyway."