President Obama’s self-imposed deadline for closing the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay was today. But given events in the last year—now complicated further by the failed airliner bombing on Christmas Day—and ongoing problems finding countries willing to accept detainees, the administration has conceded it will not meet the President’s ambitious target.

In a new Q&A, Christopher Boucek discusses the prospects for closing Guantanamo, the role that Yemen and other countries will play in the process, and its impact on U.S. national security. “Symbolically, Guantanamo is very important because it represents how the Obama administration is rethinking U.S. counterterrorism strategy,” says Boucek. Still, it will take years to close the detention facility because the real problem is not only Guantanamo, but the entire U.S. detention policy.



Why will the deadline be missed? What problems has the Obama administration experienced over the last year?

President Obama’s goal of closing Guantanamo in a year was very encouraging, but it was unrealistic and overly ambitious. I don’t know if the administration fully understood the depth of the problems or how complicated addressing the issues associated with Guantanamo was going to be.

The administration has not done a good job explaining why closing Guantanamo is so difficult. President Obama gave one great speech on detainees and national security in May 2009 at the National Archives Museum, but that was it. The results of the interrogation task force were never made public and we’re still waiting to hear the results of the Guantanamo Detainee Review Task Force led by the Justice Department.

The bigger issue is not what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo, it’s what to do more broadly with American detainee policy.

The big reason why the deadline will be missed is because the administration has not yet figured out what it wants to do with the remaining detainees. Part of the thinking is to relocate the detainees to the Thompson correctional facility in Illinois. But that doesn’t solve the problem, it just relocates people from Cuba to Illinois. You’re not dealing with the real issue.

The United States needs to answer three questions. Where are they going to try the detainees? Open court or military commissions? Who are they going to clear for release? And what are they going to do with the middle group of people that they don’t want to try or let go? The administration will try to make this group as small as possible, but it’s difficult to figure out how the United States can continue to hold people in prolonged or indefinite detention.


How significant is the American prison in Guantanamo to U.S. counterterrorism objectives?

Because closing Guantanamo was one of the first decisions President Obama announced—it is considered a signature issue—the whole world has focused on it. But just closing the detention center and moving detainees somewhere else will not deal with the issue or solve the real problem—everyone is going to see through this.

The bigger issue is not what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo, it’s what to do more broadly with American detainee policy. That includes everyone who is held in Guantanamo, everyone held at Bagram in Afghanistan, everyone held in Iraq, and anyone who will ever be detained around the world by the United States and its allies. That’s what is holding up this issue—it is not Guantanamo, it’s the overall detention policy.

President Obama and the administration have not done a good job of leading a discussion with the American public and global audience about the central issues at stake.

As long as American detention policy is focused on preemptive detention and detention without trial, this is still going to be a problem. President Obama and the administration have not done a good job of leading a discussion with the American public and global audience about the central issues at stake. There needs to be a discussion explaining that this is about risk and managing risk.
 
Releasing someone from custody who’s going to go back to violence is not politically acceptable, yet in the United States we deal with recidivism every day with other criminals and we manage it. A discussion about two options—either detainees stay in custody or are released and never return to risky behavior—is unrealistic. We need to talk about how we manage risk and reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes.

It’s a huge problem, and there are only bad answers and worse ones. 

 

 

Who are the inmates currently held at the detention camp, and how many are left?

There are nearly 200 detainees left at Guantanamo. When President Obama came into office there were over 240 detainees and in the last year they have transferred or released 44. Of the detainees remaining, there are about 15 high-value detainees—these are the most feared terrorists that the administration wants to put on trial, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

Of the remaining detainees, approximately 90 of them are from Yemen. There are several Yemenis who are scheduled to go on trial and around 40 who have been cleared for release.


What are the options for dealing with the remaining detainees, and how long will it take? What is the long-term solution?

It’s going to take a long time to deal with the remaining detainees. It will take years because the problem is not just Guantanamo, it’s the 645 detainees held at the main detention center at Bagram Air Base and whoever else is held in detention all around the world by the United States, its allies, or other countries.

The Obama administration wants to make the group of people that they can’t or won’t try as small as possible. They need to figure out who can be released safely. The question of who they can release has been become a lot more politically complicated after the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas.

Terrorism is a crime, we have tried terrorists before, and our criminal system has handled it.

The United States needs to determine who is going to go on trial and where they are going to go on trial. Additionally, it has not been determined who will qualify for a public trial and who will go before a military commission. There’s a great deal of displeasure about putting people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks—on trial in New York City.

Ideally, as many people as possible should be tried in an American court, and you want to try them for the crimes that they’ve committed. Terrorism is a crime, we have tried terrorists before, and our criminal system has handled it.

As for the individuals we don’t want to release, there’s no good answer for that. Holding people in indefinite or prolonged detention is not the answer. But we simply don’t have the tools and metrics to determine whether or not someone constitutes a manageable risk. Until we have the tools and legal processes in place—as the United States has for other crimes—there is no review process or way to decide if someone should be held.


Does the evidence support the fear that released detainees will return to terrorist activity?

Every time you release someone from any type of custodial situation—whether it is a prison or a mental health facility—there is always a risk that he will return to undesirable behavior. The only way to prevent this risk is to not let anyone out, but we shouldn’t tolerate this. We need to create programs to help manage the risk of allowing people out of custody.

There will always be a certain number of detainees who return to the behavior they were previously involved in. Recidivism in federal prisons in the United States is about 40 percent. According to the Pentagon, recidivism is around 20 percent for Guantanamo. But we need to have better and more detailed methods for measuring engagement in violence or radicalism. We can’t expect someone who was deeply involved in violence to give it up easily, but some of these detainees had never engaged in violent actions in the first place.

Officials and policy makers need to think of these behaviors as points on a spectrum, and create specific interventions to stop behaviors that are objectionable.


Do terrorist rehabilitation and disengagement programs, particularly those of Saudi Arabia, reduce the risks of releasing detainees?

To the best of my knowledge, Saudi Arabia is the only country with a formal program to help reintegrate their nationals who come back from Guantanamo. The United States has made similar programs a condition for some other countries, including Kuwait, to receive detainees. Yemen would obviously need to have a program in place to facilitate the return of Yemeni nationals.

The programs are designed to reduce the likelihood that detainees are going to return to their previous behaviors and also hinder the radicalization process in their social circles. In other words, the programs are not simply intended to take away the negatives, but also provide positive outlets—for instance, a way to be religiously active without resorting to violence.

All this shows that if a country doesn’t have support systems for people when they leave detention, it is nearly guaranteed that they will go back to what they were doing before.

In Saudi Arabia, 120 Saudi nationals have been repatriated, plus the bodies of three people who died at Guantanamo. Out of the total number of Saudis who returned home, 26 of them aren’t considered successfully reintegrated because they are either wanted, in custody, or were killed in security incidents. Among the Saudis, there were eleven who went to Yemen, and eight are there now (two have been killed and one turned himself in).

All this shows that if a country doesn’t have support systems for people when they leave detention, it is nearly guaranteed that they will go back to what they were doing before.


President Obama recently announced a temporary freeze on repatriating Yemeni detainees. Since nearly half the remaining detainees come from Yemen, how will the country’s instability impede Obama’s ability to shut down the detention center? 

It’s clear that if we want to properly address Guantanamo, we need to deal with the Yemeni population in the detention facility. This can’t be a Yemeni prison. Until we figure out what to do with the Yemenis in Guantanamo, we’re never going to solve the problem. Right now, not only is it politically unviable to send detainees back to Yemen as there is no formal system to handle them, there’s a genuine fear that former detainees will be a huge boost to al-Qaeda.

The only solution is to help Yemen build programs to absorb returnees and reintegrate them into society. The Yemenis can’t do it by themselves. They don’t have the resources. The United States and the international community have the knowledge and the money.

Yemen faces a uniquely awful confluence of crises that threatens to overwhelm the state’s capacity to govern. The combination of all these issues—the economy, poverty, unemployment, depletion of both oil and water, corruption, civil war, secession—is stretching the Yemeni government beyond its ability to manage them.

The only solution is to help Yemen build programs to absorb returnees and reintegrate them into society. The Yemenis can’t do it by themselves.

It’s not al-Qaeda that’s going to destroy the Yemeni state; it’s the other systemic problems that fuel militancy and extremism. So if we’re going to manage this problem from an international perspective, we’re going to need to help Yemen develop and manage a system to deal with former detainees, especially the 40 Yemeni nationals who have been cleared for release. Processes must be in place to manage the risk of sending them back.

Otherwise, the Yemeni government will face domestic pressure to release them altogether, and that is exactly what the United States wants to avoid. But, people always seem to forget that we’re talking about only 90 Yemenis remaining at Guantanamo—this is a manageable problem. We can deal with this.