President Donald Trump’s decision to keep open the Guantanamo Bay detention facility might score him some political points with those under the wrong impression that the facility is actually valuable to American national security, but it is fundamentally wrong.
Framing this policy at the State of the Union address as delivering on a campaign promise to keep the facility open, Trump’s move reverses a 2009 executive order signed by President Barack Obama to close Guantanamo, the Cuban outpost where about 800 men over the course of its operation have been detained, but which now holds only 41.
The decision unfortunately does nothing more than reaffirm American commitments to a facility that is not only fraught with a legacy of torture and human rights abuses, but which is also demonstrably ineffective for American national security purposes.
As the past nearly two decades have shown, the facility is poorly situated for getting much done. According to Human Rights Watch, of the 780 men who have been held at the Guantanamo base, 731 were ultimately released without charges. Of the eight people convicted by military commissions, three saw their convictions overturned and three others were at least partially invalidated.
According to the organization Human Rights First, of the 41 detainees left at the Cuban facility, 23 are not currently charged with anything and are being held indefinitely, 10 are to be tried in military commissions, five have been cleared for release and only three have been convicted.
From a simple financial perspective, the facility makes little sense. More than $6 billion has been spent to operate the Guantanamo lockup, while only a handful of detainees have ever been convicted by military commissions or federal courts. This contrasts with hundreds of people – 443 as of 2014 – convicted on terrorism charges and held in American federal prisons.
At a cost of more than $440 million a year to operate, it is difficult to see how keeping the facility going makes much sense when federal courts and prisons can do a better job at lower cost while also being more consistent with international norms and what should be American values with respect to due process and human rights.
To the latter point, Guantanamo has long been an embodiment of all that has been wrong with the way the U.S. has pursued the “war on terror.” The use of torture, indefinite detention without a trial and the squandering of billions of American taxpayer dollars to run the facility have done far more to undermine America’s reputation than to protect the American people.
Trump, in keeping the facility open, may think he is presenting a tough front on terrorism, but all that he is really doing is wasting considerable resources for a facility that hasn’t actually been all that useful in combating or dealing with terrorism.
It would be far more valuable for those remaining at the facility to actually have their day in court and be held accountable accordingly. Throwing more money at a costly, ineffective facility with such a disgraceful record is the wrong move.