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After Guantánamo

President Obama has ordered the closing of the prison at Guantánamo and pledged to respect American values in the fight against terrorism. Will his actions make the U.S. safer?

By Patricia Smith


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Consider the case of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man authorities believe trained to be the "20th hijacker" in the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qahtani was captured near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001 and sent to the Guantánamo detention camp, where he has been held since.

Last month, just before President Barack Obama took office, a senior Pentagon official said that she believed the interrogation methods used on Al-Qahtani at Guantánamo amounted to torture. As a result, it is unclear whether a man who may pose a real threat can now be fairly prosecuted.

The Al-Qahtani case encapsulates many of the issues facing the Obama administration as it changes some of the most disputed counter-terrorism policies of the Bush administration. Two days after his inauguration, President Obama ordered the Guantánamo prison closed within a year, all secret C.I.A. prisons around the world shut down, and an end to harsh interrogation methods.

But those executive orders leave unanswered many of the details of exactly how all this will be accomplished without risking the safety of the American people.

Not All Clear-Cut

"We're inheriting a very difficult situation," says Vice President Joe Biden. "Not all of it is clear-cut."

Human-rights groups have long maintained that the Bush administration trampled on civil liberties in its effort to protect the nation from additional terrorist attacks. Critics decried the indefinite holding of prisoners at Guantánamo, the use of electronic wiretaps without warrants, the use of interrogation tactics some consider torture on terrorism suspects, and the practice of "rendition"—taking terrorism suspects to other countries where they can be held and interrogated in secret.

On the campaign trail, Obama called such policies wrong and counterproductive. And even in his inaugural address, he sought to send a signal to the world that he intends to conduct the war against terrorism differently.

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," the President said.

Senior officials in the new administration have been echoing that theme. Dennis C. Blair, the new director of national intelligence, called Guantánamo "a rallying cry for terrorist recruitment" and said U.S. intelligence agencies "must respect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people, and they must adhere to the rule of law."

Closing Guantánamo and banning coercive interrogation "is the right thing to do morally, diplomatically, militarily, and constitutionally," says John D. Hutson, a retired admiral and law school dean. "But it also makes us safer."

Not everyone agrees. Former Vice President Dick Cheney staunchly defends the way the Bush administration fought the war on terror and urged Obama to reconsider before he dismantled the controversial programs. "A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that," Cheney says.

Many questions about how the Obama approach will work remain unanswered: Where will the 245 prisoners still at Guantánamo go when the prison closes? (Lawmakers are already worried about them ending up in their district or state. The supermax prison in Florence, Colo., and the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., have been mentioned.)

What will happen to people like Al-Qahtani, who it may be difficult to try in the U.S. legal system because he may have been tortured or because some of the intelligence is too sensitive to use in court? What will happen to newly captured terrorism suspects? How can the U.S. be sure that detainees released from Guantánamo don't pose a threat in the future?

'Returned to the Fight'

Military officials recently estimated that about 60 former Guantánamo detainees have already "returned to the fight" against the U.S. One detainee who was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 is now believed to be a leader of Al Qaeda's operations in Yemen.

"The lesson here is, whoever receives former Guantánamo detainees needs to keep a close eye on them," says a U.S. official.

The prison opened in January 2002 on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, which the United States has leased from Cuba since 1903. The terrorism suspects held there were designated "enemy combatants" by President Bush rather than prisoners of war. The site was chosen because it was not on American soil, where the prisoners might be considered subject to U.S. legal protections.

The Obama team hopes that closing Guantánamo and ending the Bush administration's more controversial counterterrorism measures will improve America's image abroad.

"We intend to win this fight," President Obama said. "We are going to win it on our own terms."