Feb. 12, 2009

Guantánamo closing author assails 'bloody mess'

Jason Koski/University Photography
Sarah Mendelson speaks about the closing of Guantanamo Bay prison Feb. 5 in Uris Hall.

President Barack Obama drew on the findings of a nongovernmental organization report called "Closing Guantánamo: From Bumper Sticker to Blueprint" in his Jan. 22 order to close the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp on Cuba within a year. That report came from the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Human Rights and Security Initiative, and fully 90 percent of the executive order came from the report, said Sarah E. Mendelson, director of the center, speaking on campus Feb. 5.

"Trying to get your ideas into policy is pretty much the coin of the realm," said Mendelson, who wrote the report with the CSIS Working Group on Guantánamo and Detention Policy. By March 2008, five former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger, advocated closing Guantánamo. How to do it was the question.

In November 2007, Mendelson, a Russia specialist, convened a series of regular meetings, funded by a Ford Foundation grant, with uniformed service members, human rights leaders, a staff member of the 9/11 commission and others to work out the process to close Guantánamo. "This was a nonpartisan effort," Mendelson said. "What goes on in the United States has a disproportionate effect for human rights around the world."

The ramifications of closing the detention facility are complex, Mendelson said. "There is, frankly, no silver bullet. There's no easy answer. This is a bloody mess, and undoing and untangling this mess is problematic ... we were skeptical it could be done quickly."

The report and the executive order assumes that European governments, among others, will offer more help to the Obama administration than they did to the Bush administration, Mendelson said.

"Bush administration policy on Guantánamo evolved enormously over time," said Mendelson. "The Bush administration released over 500 people from Guantánamo. We don't have any window on what that process was. We don't know how they made the decisions to release some people or not. From a high of about 700 [prisoners], there are now 235."

There have been only three convictions of Guantánamo prisoners since 2002. Mendelson and her group were not allowed to see files on the prisoners and has only a vague idea of who is there. They do know that Guantánamo houses about 14 "high value" detainees suspected of serious crimes for which they could be brought into the U.S. criminal justice system. There are standing indictments against prisoners like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Fifty have been cleared for release or transfer.

Another 120 prisoners were categorized by the Bush administration as neither prosecutable nor transferable. "This is the alleged third category," said Mendelson. "You can be nervous about people, but detaining them without charge because you're worried that they may someday commit a crime is ... an authoritarian approach. We need to think about who is it in the long-term interest of the United States to detain, and why, and on what legal basis."

The report categorizes detainees into those to be transferred or released into the custody of another nation and those to be held for prosecution in the U.S. criminal justice system.

"We got a lot of what we wanted [into the executive order]," Mendelson said.

The report is available at http://www.csis.org/hrs.