Guantanamo Bay is a Stunningly Expensive Failure

In the Magazine
Tim Dirven/Panos

Macho preening does not enhance national security. Nor does lying. Or flushing away hundreds of millions of dollars. But somehow such nonsense has become accepted dogma among America’s political gongoozlers—particularly conservatives—when it comes to the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

I remember when I realized Guantanamo had been transformed from the best of bad options (where do you hold and interrogate terrorists captured overseas?) into a jingoistic talking point designed to spark cheers from fist-pumpers. It was 2007, and the Republican presidential primary race was under way. Until then, President George W. Bush and his administration had always burbled the right words about Gitmo since it was opened in 2002: It was a temporary solution. They wanted to close it, and they would as soon as they could.

But that year, Mitt Romney—a politician who, if monkeys could vote, would start swinging naked through the trees—proclaimed that if he was president, he would double Guantanamo. His audience roared with approval, while I scratched my head. Double what, exactly? Double the landmass, perhaps by bringing in thousands of amphibious dump trucks loaded with dirt? Double the number of people held at Gitmo, as if there were hundreds of terrorists being released from custody because there weren’t enough cells to hold them? Cram twice as many buildings into the tight area for the detention center to house all of these imaginary captured terrorists?

Romney, of course, wasn’t making an actual proposal—he is too smart to believe such drivel. No, he was just saying things, implying facts that had no basis in reality for the purpose of thrilling the GOP’s less-than-reflective conservative wing. Guantanamo had become a tough-guy totem, a linguistic muscle flex, no different from photo ops of politicians hunting, throwing axes, driving pickup trucks or otherwise trying to disguise their soft-skinned penchant for $3,000 suits beneath an unseemly veneer of faux-manliness. But that bit of sound-bite swagger signaled that the detention center had become a serious policy issue that would no longer be dealt with seriously.

From the moment Barack Obama assumed the presidency, the conservative meme of Gitmo as the true symbol of toughness and Americanism became encased in concrete. Forget the fact that not a single high-profile terror suspect captured in the United States had been shipped to the detention center throughout the entirety of the Bush administration. Suddenly, everyone had to go to Gitmo, the conservatives proclaimed.

The guy who tried to light an explosive hidden in his skivvies on a plane flying in from Europe? Not sending him to Gitmo was near treason, conservatives bleated—even though in the Bush years, the shoe bomber who did nearly the same thing was tried in a criminal court. And the Boston Marathon bomber? Off to Gitmo! they demanded—conveniently ignoring that he was an American citizen who could not lawfully be deprived of his constitutional rights and shipped offshore. And then there was Ahmed Ghailani, who was brought from Guantanamo to the United States where he was tried in criminal court, convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison. Ghailani begged to be sent back to Guantanamo—it was nicer, he said, than American prisons. And conservatives gnashed their teeth and rent their clothes because Obama wouldn’t give this terrorist what he wanted (although they never said it that way).

The truth is, Guantanamo doesn’t work. David Addington, legal counsel and chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, has been cast as the rights-destroying boogeyman by liberal critics, but he was horrified that accused terrorists were still being held at Gitmo without trial—in 2003. It’s now 11 years later, and there have been four—count ’em, four—completed cases before military commissions at Guantanamo. Two of those involved guilty pleas. The other two? Convictions tossed out by an appeals court because the charges involved actions that weren’t crimes when they took place. Meanwhile, scores of terrorists have been convicted in American criminal courts during the same time, and many of the worst are locked up with life sentences.

So now we have this irrational celebration of failure—one that robs this country of our moral standing worldwide and our expressed commitment to justice—that is untouchable because it’s good for rounding up votes from the uninformed. And the price tag for accomplishing nothing while damaging ourselves? Astronomical.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee released its report on the Defense Department budget. Buried inside were the numbers for Guantanamo—and they are horrifying. It costs $78,000 a year to hold a prisoner in a maximum-security facility, according to the Government Accountability Office; at Guantanamo, that number is an almost incomprehensible $2,768,902. In other words, the cost of chest thumping is about $2,690,000 per detainee.

And that is just the beginning: Since the facility was never intended to be a permanent structure, it’s starting to fall apart. Take just the troop quarters, where the soldiers responsible for running Gitmo are housed: According to the Senate report, the rooms are overcrowded; the air conditioning is wheezing; the metal support structure is dilapidated; and the plumbing is corroding. All of it needs to be replaced, which the Senate report says will throw another $100 million onto the financial bonfire.

Not done yet. All those accused terrorists have been locked up for more than a decade, which means they are getting older—some of them are even getting old. That means there are more demands on the medical clinic, which the Senate report says isn’t big enough and doesn’t have proper equipment. For emergency care, there is only the base hospital, which has to be used after hours or closed down during the day for security reasons when a detainee is brought there for a severe medical problem. The cost of fixing that up is another $11 million.

All of these expenditures might make sense if Guantanamo served a purpose, but it doesn’t. None of these detainees have any actionable intelligence after more than a decade of being locked up (and if they haven’t given up the information by now, they never will.) Despite the silliness of politicians and government officials in describing these guys, they are not superhumans with the ability to bring down airplanes with their teeth, as one military officer once claimed. They won’t walk through walls or knock them down with their minds if they are placed in maximum-security prisons. Just ask the dozens of convicted terrorists now serving lengthy sentences at normal prisons who have yet to break out.

Guantanamo is a failure—legally, morally, strategically and financially. The only thing it is good for is making politicians look tough. And America shouldn’t be wasting its money and reputation for that.

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