Within the past month, we have seen the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, claim responsibility for blowing up a Soviet airliner in Egypt; killing 40+ people in Lebanon; and triggering the deadly attacks and killings in Paris, where at least 130 people died and 200 were injured. We have seen the threat of additional attacks cause the cancellation of a soccer match in Germany and, even more drastically, put Brussels on a three-day security lockdown. The U.S. Government recently issued a security alert amid increasing fears that ISIS will initiate a terrorist act here at home, in America.
If ISIS does attack in the U.S., it is likely that we will capture some of the alleged assailants and their conspirators either here or in other countries. What will we do with them? Will we prosecute them as criminals, as we should? Or will we call them "enemy combatants," and repeat what we did after the attacks on September 11, 2001 by imprisoning them in the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?
President Obama has said that he will not send any more people to Guantanamo. However, because of current events, would his position still hold? Might public opinion pressure him to act? And how will the new president react when he or she assumes office less than 14 months from now?
Over the past seven years, the Witness to Guantanamo project (WtG) has filmed in-depth interviews with 136 people who have lived or worked in Guantanamo, including 50 former detainees. We have been to 20 countries. What we heard from people on both sides of the wire and across the political spectrum was that Guantanamo was a mistake. Guantanamo made things worse. These are five of the consequences of Guantanamo that we heard:
1. America's reputation at home and abroad has gravely suffered. Guantanamo has harmed our relationship with other countries. Our image as the beacon of human rights has faltered. As long as Guantanamo exists, we do not hold the moral high ground. As several government and military officials have said, Guantanamo is a black stain on America, and it must be removed.
2. To the extent we intended to treat the detainees justly and provide them rights under the rule of law, we failed. By circumventing the Geneva Conventions and the American Constitution in Guantanamo, we did not live up to our own rules and principles. Guantanamo was a place where the military and American officials could, and did, disregard the rule of law with impunity. Many of the detainees were held for years without charges, some over a decade. And, many were held, and are still being held, for years after being "cleared for release."
3. Because the U.S. military focused solely on gathering intelligence to avert another attack, it did not concern itself with whether the evidence it collected was admissible in a court of law. Consequently, the military's harsh interrogation treatment hampered law enforcement's "rapport-based" interrogation policy to gather admissible evidence for prosecution of terrorists.
4. Guantanamo has adversely impacted U.S. security. It has become a flashpoint for radical Islam, and an ideal recruitment tool for terrorists. Not only have interviewees told us this, but other high-ranking government and international officials have made similar statements.
5. Noncombatant personnel who worked with detainees and participated in or observed mistreatment suffered PTSD as a result of their work in Guantanamo. That is, some of our very own military personnel suffered tremendously having to participate in the brutal, harsh and unlawful environment of Guantanamo.
Many of the interviewees stressed that there is a need for principled policies that consider the long-term impact when it comes to capturing and detaining alleged terrorists and their conspirators. Guantanamo was not a considered and principled decision.
As we face a terrorist threat from a new source, now is the time for the American people to remind both President Obama and all the candidates for the next election to reject Guantanamo as an answer. The politicians must not revert to a process that went terribly wrong by again sending terrorists and alleged terrorists to Guantanamo.
Guantanamo has been a costly mistake that created more problems than it solved. We must not repeat it!
Peter Jan Honigsberg is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and Founder and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project, witnesstoguantanamo.com.