Former DoD spokesman J.D. Gordon: Closing Gitmo requires a better Plan B

As Congress tackles the annual battle over Guantanamo with a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing this week, a proposal by two House members to transfer detainees into the United States and a delegation visit to the Caribbean lockdown, those in favor of closure should produce a better Plan B before arguing to shut the prison down.

Though President Obama has made Gitmo closure a cornerstone of his presidency since day one, he and his allies in Congress have yet to put forth a reasonable alternative for holding and interrogating some of the world’s top al Qaeda and Taliban terror suspects while adequately protecting Americans.

While Gitmo critics frequently cite the low numbers of detainees still held at the prison, they often shy away from discussing who they are. Still there are al Qaeda leaders and affiliates responsible for Sept. 11 and bombings at a Bali nightclub, the Jakarta Marriott, and scores of other attacks that have killed thousands of civilians. There too are Taliban leaders who carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign against the minority Hazaras in Afghanistan and battled U.S. and coalition forces after sheltering al Qaeda.

A Plan B requires that the American people be protected from another mass-casualty attack like Sept. 11 and smaller-scale attacks like at the Boston Marathon this year. It means continued prevention of numerous terror plots against New York and Washington, D.C., which have been fortunately averted due to solid intelligence collection and superb law enforcement operations.

In his May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Obama made his case for moving detainees into the United States, stating “no one person has ever escaped from one of our supermax or military prisons in the United States.”

While true, Obama carefully omitted an important facet of the controversial “indefinite detention” legal status for 46 of 166 remaining Gitmo detainees. Should they find themselves suddenly in the U.S., activist judges will line up for jurisdiction either to try or release them, based upon their own personal interpretations of the Constitution.

Thus instead of breaking out of prison, a more realistic scenario is them simply walking out.

He also left out the number of ex-Gitmo detainees who already returned to terrorism, which the director of national intelligence estimated at close to 30 percent, or nearly 200 men.

This includes Abdallah al-Ajmi, a suicide bomber who killed 13 in Mosul, Iraq; Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, the Taliban’s operational leader in southern Afghanistan; Abdullah Mehsud, another Taliban leader who directed a suicide bombing on Pakistan’s minister of the Interior, killing 31; and Abu Sufyan Al-Shihri who became the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In their push to bring Gitmo detainees into the U.S., Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) note that 86 of 166 detainees have been “cleared” for release by the Obama administration.

So who are these mysterious 86?

Fifty-six are Yemenis, including former Osama bin Laden bodyguards, security force leaders and foot soldiers. Unlike in the U.S., Yemen jailbreaks are routine. Others include terror suspects from places where they could be executed if returned home — including Syria, Algeria and China — but due to their affiliation with al Qaeda and already high recidivism rates, are not welcome elsewhere.

Given the high risk that closing Gitmo poses to Americans, what benefits do Obama and his allies in Congress possibly hope to gain?

While they discuss adhering to the “rule of law” and “living by our values,” they ignore the concept that America remains at war and as such has a right — in fact a responsibility — under U.S. and customary international law to hold enemy combatants until the end of hostilities. We wouldn't dream of releasing Nazi prisoners in 1943, thus we should not let al Qaeda and Taliban radicals go free in 2013.

They argue that Gitmo serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists. But al Qaeda’s attacks on the East African U.S. Embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, and America on Sept. 11, 2001, came well before Gitmo welcomed its first detainees in Jan. 2002.

Congress must act to ensure Americans are protected, as outlined in the Constitution. American lives are at stake, possibly by the tens of thousands, should Gitmo detainees be transferred to U.S. soil without a fail-safe plan.

In devising a Plan B for what comes after Gitmo, we must realize that America cannot survive fighting a 21st century war with a 20th century mentality. While we should protect our values and civil liberties, we must also balance them with appropriate security measures, mindful of enemy capabilities.

In an era when just 19 people can kill 3,000 in a few hours with physical force, let alone fewer can kill tens of thousands with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, we need a paradigm shift to better protect ourselves not just on the battlefield, but in cyberspace, in our legal system and in the battle of ideas.

Though not optimal, until we have tougher laws against terrorism, including the indefinite detention of foreign enemy combatants regardless of location, and/or radical Islam no longer poses a security threat, Gitmo remains our best option.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. He is a senior communications adviser to several think tanks in Washington, D.C.