Terror Attacks in France Complicate Issue of Closing Gitmo
Policy + Politics

Terror Attacks in France Complicate Issue of Closing Gitmo

The world’s gaze was largely focused on France this Sunday, where hundreds of thousands of citizens, joined by an elite army of foreign dignitaries, marched through the streets of Paris in a show of defiance just days after Islamic terrorists murdered nearly 20 people in multiple attacks.

The primary target of the terrorists was French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was notorious for mocking religion – particularly militant Islam. Eleven of the magazine’s staff including four well-known cartoonists were killed and nearly the same number were wounded. While the assault on free speech was felt particularly acutely in the U.S., the attacks also renewed public attention on the more than 100 prisoners still held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Related: Why France Failed to Prevent the Charlie Hebdo Massacre 

President Obama has declared his intention to shut down the detention center by the end of his second term, which would require the release of nearly 60 of the 127 detainees currently held there, and the transfer of the remaining 5 or 6 dozen to different facilities.

On Meet the Press Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd interviewed Clifford Sloan, the former State Department Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure. Todd pointed out that while 59 of the detainees at Guantanamo have been approved for release – some of them years ago – at least one of the Paris attackers is believed to have been further radicalized while in prison in France.

Should Americans be concerned that detainees approved for release might turn around and attack the United States, he asked.

Sloan replied that President Obama had instituted a yearlong extensive review of every single detainee in the complex on his second day in office in 2009. He pointed out that detainees cleared for release had to be approved by the intelligence community, the Defense Department, the States Department and a number of other agencies.

Related: $904,000 a Year Per Inmate: Guantanamo by the Numbers

“For somebody to be approved for transfer it meant that six departments and agencies had to agree,” Sloan said. Among those already released under the program, he said, “The percentage of those who have subsequently engaged in wrongdoing is small. 6.8 percent.” 

He acknowledged that everyone would prefer the number be zero, but said, “Well over 90 percent…are not even suspected of engaging in wrongdoing.”

The administration still remains committed to closing the camp, he said, adding that the “first priority” is to transfer those who have been approved, and then to consider what to do with the remainder. 


Why This Matters: The expense of running Guantanamo Bay Prison is minor in the context of the full federal budget, but the cost to the country in terms of its reputation and self-image is difficult to calculate. If nothing else, the Charlie Hebdo attacks will make an already fraught debate over closing the facility even more tense.

Congress has blocked the administration from transferring any of the detainees to the U.S. However, the U.S. government is currently spending $443 million a year on Guantanamo – an expense that will look increasingly difficult to justify when the facility holds fewer than 70 men.

“Left with a small core,” Sloan said, “At that point the case [for closure] will be overwhelming.” 

Related: The Most Powerful Twitter Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey if he worries that the administration is in too much of a hurry to close Guantanamo. 

“I am in the group that believes it is in our national interest to close Guantanamo,” Dempsey said. “It does create a psychological scar on our national values. Whether it should or not, it does.”

Dempsey went on to suggest that Guantanamo is a problem of Congress’s making, and one that lawmakers themselves need to address. 

“What I have also said quite clearly is there are some of these detainees in particular in this kind of conflict over a protracted period that simply should not be released,” he said. “We’re going to come to a point though where we’ve got dozens of these people who have to be detained and we have to figure that out.”

Related: Charlie Hebdo – Deadliest Terror Attack on France in Decades 

“But you would not release them?” Wallace asked.

“No, of course not,” said Dempsey.

“And if you can’t release them and the U.S. Congress says you can’t bring them to this country?” Wallace said. 

“Isn’t that a fair question for our elected leaders?” Dempsey replied.

“Well, doesn’t that mean you have to keep Gitmo open?”

“Well, that’s a policy decision,” the general concluded. “But there’s going to be dozens of these individuals that have to be detained. Our elected officials need to find a way to detain them.”

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