In the dark days after 9/11, it may have been necessary to detain dangerous terrorists outside the war zone and outside the United States.
Twelve years later, the prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba defies common sense – wasting tax dollars and weakening our constitutional principles without making us appreciably safer.
The U.S. Senate should seize the chance to take a big step toward finally shutting down the prison. As soon as this week, senators will vote on a defense spending bill that would give President Barack Obama long-needed flexibility to begin transferring the 164 detainees still being held, including 84 already cleared for release as low-level security risks.
Added to the measure by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Guantánamo provisions come with plenty of safeguards. They would:
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• Send detainees to foreign countries if they are no longer a threat, if a court orders their transfer, or if they are acquitted or have completed their sentences.
• Allow other transfers if the secretary of defense decides that it is in the U.S. national security interest and that steps have been taken to lessen the risk that the detainee will commit terrorist acts.
• Authorize detainees to be put on trial or imprisoned on U.S. soil if the secretary of defense determines it is safe and in our national security interest to do so.
• Permit the temporary transfer of seriously ill detainees to military hospitals in the U.S.
Human rights groups say these are the most far-reaching changes to Guantánamo considered by Congress since 2010, when it severely restricted transfers out of the prison. The advocates are cautiously optimistic that if the Senate passes the bill, the Guantánamo provisions would survive negotiations with the Republican House, which passed a defense bill with the old restrictions.
The groups make a compelling case that for little discernible benefit, Guantánamo has exacted a very high price.
Since opening in 2002, it has cost about $4.7 billion to run, according to the Pentagon – and the bill keeps rising. The $454 million this year amounts to roughly $2.7 million per detainee, 35 times the average cost for an inmate at a federal “supermax” prison.
The military commission has cost some $600 million so far, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and has produced a mere seven convictions, two of which were reversed. For far less, federal courts have convicted more than 500 people on terrorism-related charges since Sept. 11.
Then there’s the cost to America’s standing in the world. Guantánamo is widely condemned by our allies, while our enemies use it to recruit more jihadists.
Ever since the 2008 campaign, Obama has rightly promised to close Guantánamo, but put the issue aside after having his hands repeatedly tied by Congress. His hand was forced again this year by a six-month hunger strike that refocused international attention on the prison.
The president has renewed efforts to repatriate the 84 detainees cleared for release, a move strongly supported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, among others. The administration is in talks with the Yemeni government to open a detention facility there for its citizens, who make up more than half the detainees and 55 of those already designated for transfer.
Obama recommitted last week to closing Guantánamo once and for all. Congress should stop standing in the way.