Defense Secretary Ashton Carter faces a profound dilemma. He leads the department that has jurisdiction over the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that detains Islamic terrorists. At the same time, his boss, President Obama, is determined to close Guantanamo to fulfill a campaign promise he made eight years ago. In fact, the president’s single-minded focus on closing Guantanamo in the waning months of his administration – as illustrated by the recent release of 10 dangerous detainees, with the promise of more releases to come – is endangering American lives as well as those of our friends and allies.
This I believe – and know firsthand – based on my experience during my last five years with the George W. Bush administration while serving as the senior government official responsible for the decision to transfer or release enemy combatants from Guantanamo.
Contrary to what some may believe, Bush had no desire to hold any person at Guantanamo who did not absolutely need to be there. The guidance I received was to first determine through careful vetting which detainees posed less risk and then decide whether transfer or even release was appropriate – the opposite of the Obama White House’s approach. The process involved input from many federal agencies and defense organizations, military and civilian. I personally read the dossiers and each organization’s recommendation – many of which were in conflict – before making a final decision. Obviously, a recidivism rate of zero is unattainable. Seeking the right balance was an agonizing task that often had to be conducted on the basis of incomplete information.
Early in the process, low-level and less-threatening detainees were returned to their home countries as it was decided that they would not likely return to the fight. In time, the cases became more complex. Those remaining at Guantanamo had a record of participating in terrorism, financing terrorism or outright leadership of terrorist activity.
After being assured by host countries that returned detainees would be reformed, held in local detention or otherwise monitored, I transferred some higher-risk detainees from Guantanamo. Over time, it was learned that some of those assurances had not been honored and that detainees were returning to the fight. Some were recaptured or killed fighting U.S. and allied troops. Some engaged in terrorist attacks on civilians. Despite this record and risk, we expended great effort – including extensive intelligence collection – to be certain that the continued holding of any detainee was absolutely justified by the threat he posed.
In retrospect, by trying to be as fair as possible, I approved the transfer of too many higher-risk detainees who went on to kill again. That weighs on my conscience.
When I left office at the end of the Bush administration, there were more than 200 detainees at Guantanamo. Based on what I knew then – I had studied each file many times – none would have been approved for release. Under Obama, more than half have been released – none of them “low risk” according to the vigorous vetting we had conducted during the Bush administration. Statements to the contrary by the White House are misleading at best.
Some will argue that circumstances change over eight years, allowing for prudent transfers. But, if anything, the terrorist threat has grown significantly worse with the rise of the Islamic State. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that hardened jihadists rarely go soft over time. Being uncomfortable with the existence of Guantanamo doesn’t change that inconvenient fact. Importantly, under the law of war, a nation at war has the legal right to detain the enemy for the duration of hostilities. The global campaign against violent Islamist ideology and terrorist groups is unlikely to see a definitive or officially pronounced end. However, our national leadership has the legal right, and the moral obligation, to continue to detain enemy fighters as long as they pose a significant risk of rejoining hostilities.
So where does this leave Carter, who now carries the same responsibility – and heavy moral burden – that I carried in the previous administration? I know and respect Ash Carter. Some years ago, we served together on the Defense Science Board. He demonstrates good judgment, is highly intelligent and is a man of integrity. I greatly respect his willingness to serve the United States as defense secretary.
The president, as the nation’s chief executive, has full authority over all matters of the executive branch. But to release more detainees, other than ones such as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks who are hopefully detained forever, he still must go through the Defense Department, which has jurisdiction over Guantanamo.
From my perspective, Carter’s choice, though wrenching, is very clear. He should resist intense White House pressure and refuse to approve any further transfers of detainees. And if given no choice by the president, he must be willing to give up his job as defense secretary.
Perhaps such a dramatic decision by the secretary would force the president to recognize the truth of his actions: Transferring high-risk detainees – who will almost certainly rejoin the fight – poses a clear and present danger to our country and to our allies’ security.
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Gordon England was deputy U.S. secretary of defense from 2006 to 2009.