Trump’s dangerous Guantánamo fixation will fuel fire for terrorists

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In an age of radicalization through the internet and mass media, imagery and messaging are critical. That’s a key reason that President Trump’s suggestion that the suspect in last month’s terrorist attack in New York be sent to Guantánamo Bay is so counterproductive. Adding to the detainee population there for the first time in almost a decade, whether in the case of Sayfullo Saipov or in another instance, would return the United States to the worst excesses and imagery of the post-9/11 approach to counterterrorism.

Even worse, it would do so without any corresponding national security benefit, while wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Like the president’s three attempts to bar access to the United States from a range of Muslim-majority countries, Trump’s reigniting of a long-settled debate over Guantánamo validates the messaging of terrorists about the United States and threatens to fuel the very radical Islamic extremism Trump has vowed to eradicate.

{mosads}Trump appears fixated on Guantánamo, whose harmful symbolism long ago surpassed any utility it might once have offered to the United States. This marks a reversal of the policies of his predecessors, who recognized that Guantánamo’s continued operation made us less safe, not more. In the words of President George W. Bush, Guantánamo, by the end of his presidency, “had become a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.” For similar reasons, President Obama also concluded that the continued operation of Guantánamo damaged our national security.

The bipartisan view that Guantánamo’s continued operation harms national security is not limited to Presidents Obama and Bush. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has remarked that he is “in favor of closing Guantánamo because of the image that Guantánamo has in the world, whether it’s deserved or not.” Likewise, former Secretaries of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, James Baker and Henry Kissinger have all advocated for closing Guantánamo. Secretaries of Defense Ash Carter, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates have similarly advocated for closing the detention facility, as have three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and 42 former generals and admirals.

The reasons are clear. The facility remains a potent radicalization symbol frequently invoked in terrorist recruitment materials. What’s more, there are far cheaper and equally effective ways of detaining suspected terrorists. Guantánamo is regularly invoked in terrorist propaganda precisely because of the enduring, albeit outdated, images of the facility’s earliest days of Muslim men wearing orange jumpsuits shackled in open air cages, exposed to the elements, kneeling before their American military captors. Many of those men were, and still are, appropriately held in U.S. custody. But anyone who questions the enduring and unfortunate symbolism of Guantánamo needs only recall horrific images of Western hostages in those same orange jumpsuits being slaughtered by ISIS.

As McCain correctly observed, it matters little that images of Guantánamo have not corresponded to reality for well over a decade. What matters is the image. By doubling down on Guantánamo and what it represents, Trump is adding fuel to the fire of terrorist incitement. He is doing so at unnecessary financial cost to the American taxpayer. In fiscal 2015, Guantánamo cost taxpayers about $445 million. With 41 remaining detainees today, that equates to over $10 million per detainee per year, not including approximately $200 million in costs for military construction and other improvements needed to upgrade a now crumbling facility.

Transferring remaining detainees to a secure facility in the United States, as President Obama proposed to do for those who could not be responsibly transferred abroad, would cost under $100,000 per detainee per year and would save $1.7 billion over 20 years. There is no question that hardened terrorists can be held safely and securely in the federal prison system. Over 400 convicted terrorists are held there, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Richard Reid, Umar Abdulmutallab, Faisal Shahzad and Zacarias Moussaoui, without reports of a single security incident.

There is no serious dispute among national security professionals that Guantánamo is used as a recruitment tool by those looking to kill and maim Americans. There is no serious dispute among number crunchers about the astronomical financial burdens that Guantánamo’s continued operation imposes on the United States without any identifiable security benefit. Sadly, last month’s terrorist attack in New York won’t, we fear, be the last one to kill Americans and yield a terrorism suspect in U.S. custody. When it happens again, Trump would serve us all well by forgoing his Guantánamo fetish that threatens our security.

Lee Wolosky served as U.S. special envoy for Guantánamo closure from 2015 to 2017 and was director of transnational threats on the National Security Council under President Clinton and President Bush. He is now a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

Joshua Geltzer served as senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017. He is now executive director and visiting professor of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University.

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump George Bush Guantánamo Bay Hillary Clinton John Kerry John McCain Military National security Terrorism United States

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