September 14, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Guantanamo, a Too-Precious Prison

The military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay recently made news, and events could put it front and center once again.

• The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station (GTMO) is costly and inefficient, both for detaining terrorist combatants and as a trial venue.

• Although holding known and suspected terrorists there remains lawful, the United States has cheaper, more secure options for law of war detentions.

• Federal courts have much better records of convicting terrorists than Guantanamo military commissions.

• If U.S. domestic politics preclude closing the facility, steps will have to be taken to provide geriatric care for aging detainees.


The military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay recently made news, and events could put it front and center once again. In August, the Trump Administration  developed options on a new draft of an Executive Order to expand operations at the Guantanamo Bay facility. A previous draft Executive Order leaked earlier this year telegraphed Administration intentions to bring new detainees to and possibly lift restrictions on interrogation methods generally considered to be torture. And in March, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions reiterated he opposed trying terrorism suspects in federal courts, arguing that would give them access to court-appointed attorneys and the discovery process.

Contrary to Sessions’ imputation, the commissions provide robust due process protections, including court-compensated defense counsel. Regarding their effectiveness, since the commissions were created in 2001 they have obtained just eight convictions, three of which were overturned on appeal, with another three partially invalidated.  Over a similar span, prosecutors in 63 Federal Districts have obtained over 600 terrorism convictions, with an 89% conviction rate for the 2001-2009 period.

Guantanamo is also an expensive place to detain suspects and conduct trials.  In a February 2016 speech that promised to “load it up with bad dudes,” then-candidate Donald Trump claimed he could run Guantanamo for $60 million per year, far less than the $480 million he claimed it cost.  Trump’s number may be too low.  While Defense Department published costs of $445 million for 2015, that number does not include classified expenses and costs borne by other federal agencies.  Each of the 41 men left at Guantanamo now costs the American taxpayer something north of $12 million per year to detain.  California and Illinois, by contrast, report paying less than $100,000 per-person annually to incarcerate maximum security prisoners. Costs for inmates held at the Federal Bureau of Prisons Colorado supermax prison, are thought to be in the same range.

Guantanamo’s isolation adds to costs.  Cuba rejects America’s perpetual lease on the naval station, so there are no nearby friendly forces to be called upon if something goes wrong, and almost everything must be shipped in by air.  Many of the detention facility’s buildings, built for temporary use, need replacement.  Because the camp is officially temporary, the guard force consists of military police reservists whose units rotate approximately twice per year, raising training and other costs.  Congress prohibits moving any current Guantanamo detainee to the United States.  Therefore, as the current detainees age and sicken, DoD must provide costly geriatric care onsite. 

Federal courts have ruled that law of war detention at Guantanamo is legal.  However, it would be more secure if carried out at a facility deep within U.S. national territory, using buildings constructed to modern standards for high-risk inmates.  No terrorist has ever escaped from the supermax in Florence, Colorado.  Fears of Federal Courts letting “bad dues” go are groundless.  And while Guantanamo detainees have had had the right to challenge their detention since 2008, Federal Courts routinely uphold continued detention at Guantanamo unless the U.S. Government chooses not to oppose the detainee’s application.

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