The Guantanamo hunger strike has resurfaced as an issue that has for years receded in our national consciousness: What to do with the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and those held there. This week, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee takes up the issue, following on a major speech by the president, who renewed his commitment to close the facility. In the interest of national security and to regain our moral high ground in the fight against terrorism, the president should act now to close the facility and Congress should be part of the solution.
When the details of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib were released in April 2004, they left me in complete shock, as did the revelation that Abu Ghraib was the lineal descendant of Guantanamo Bay. I could not believe that the Army I served for 40 years was capable of such barbaric treatment of prisoners. I spent decades teaching soldiers how to be effective interrogators within the Geneva Conventions' constraints. It was unthinkable that officers and noncommissioned officers at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and dozens of other locations could watch abuses happen and do nothing to interfere.
Spurred by these concerns, I have worked closely with a group of more than 50 retired admirals and generals, who have advocated assiduously and publicly to get the United States out of the torture business, to close the Guantanamo prison, and to end the reliance on military commissions.
Guantanamo is an irretrievably-damaged brand. It and Abu Ghraib are where America shredded its founding principles and values. Every day it remains open, it reminds the world that America, too, has a gulag where people can be sent and held forever, without charges or a trial.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Colin Powell has said, "I would close Guantanamo. Not tomorrow, but this afternoon." Powell stands among dozens of national security-oriented leaders who have called for Guantanamo's closure. Guantanamo only bolsters our enemies' recruiting efforts and undermines counterterrorism cooperation with allies who refuse to share intelligence or hand over terrorism suspects if the result will be military detention at Guantanamo.
What makes us think we can lecture despotic governments around the world about their need to respect human rights and dignity when they can point to Guantanamo and say with absolute legitimacy, "Who are you to criticize anything?"
Guantanamo isn't necessary because our tried and true federal courts can handle terrorists, having convicted nearly 500 individuals of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11. The military commission system currently used to try Guantanamo prisoners lacks credibility and sits in a place chosen deliberately to be beyond the reach of the law. The history of military commissions is highly suspect in its own right, so it's strange that we have opted to double down on a system of faux justice by sitting the courtroom in a place that stands for secret renditions, torture, brutality, and indefinite detention without charges or a trial.
In addition, Guantanamo prosecutors have had to spend as much time trying to defend their system as trying to prosecute the defendants. For all the tweaks and massaging, the commission system is still perceived to be fundamentally flawed and unable to persuasively dodge the issues of torture and perceived unfairness.
Ultimately, Guantanamo is not about those who attacked us, but about who we are as a nation. It is a false and unworthy choice to suggest that, in the pursuit of safety, we must abandon our Constitution and our values. We are more secure when we follow the law, not when we abandon it. Congress and the administration must close Guantanamo. Now.
David Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney and a retired Army brigadier general. He was commissioned as a strategic intelligence officer and taught prisoner of war interrogation and military law for 18 years for the Sixth U.S. Army Intelligence School.