Foreign and Defense Policy, Terrorism

Mitt Romney and the future of Gitmo

The focus of the media coverage of today’s 10th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay has been largely on President Obama’s failure to close the facility and speculation about how long it will take before the United States finds some way to dispose of the 171 detainees still held there.

But the real question is not what did not happen on January 20, 2010 (the date set by Obama for Gitmo’s closure) but rather what will happen with Guantanamo come January 20, 2013, if a new Republican president takes office.

With the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, all the GOP candidates have expressed support for keeping Guantanamo open—and none more vigorously than the winner of yesterday’s New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney. Indeed, during the 2008 campaign, Romney went so far as to propose doubling the size of Gitmo so it could hold more terrorists, saying of the al Qaeda and Taliban detainees held there:

I’m glad they’re at Guantanamo. I don’t want them on our soil… I don’t want them in our prisons, I want them there. Some people say that we should close Guantanamo, my view is we outta double Guantanamo. … I believe that Guantanamo plays an important role in protecting our nation from violent, heinous terrorists. Guantanamo is a symbol of our resolve.

During the current campaign, Romney has continued in this vein. He responded to the Obama administration’s decision last April to hold a military tribunal for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad instead of a civilian trial by declaring:

An inexperienced and naïve president has finally reversed himself on Guantanamo and terrorist trials. Let’s hope he sees the light on his other flawed policies.

And he has slammed the Obama administration for considering the release of five senior Taliban leaders as part of peace negotiations with the Taliban, telling Reuters:

I don’t believe in releasing prisoners as part of a terrorist negotiation. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban are terrorists, they are our enemy and I do not believe in a prisoner release exchange.

Romney also supports enhanced interrogation. During the CBS debate in November, Romney was one of the only candidates not asked his position on waterboarding, so with the debate still going on his campaign spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, tweeted: “He wasn’t asked but it’s not torture.” In 2008, Romney expressed strong support for CIA interrogations, declaring in a CNN debate:

I want to make sure that what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed happens to other people who are terrorists. He was captured. He was the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 tragedy. And he turned to his captors, and he said, “I’ll see you in New York with my lawyers.” I presume ACLU lawyers. That’s not what happened. He went to Guantanamo, and he met GIs and CIA interrogators, and that’s just exactly how it ought to be.

Romney had it slightly wrong: KSM was sent first to a CIA black site where he was interrogated and then later transferred to Gitmo. But his key point remains: he wants other terrorists to be captured and interrogated just like KSM was. Today, that is not happening. Outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration is killing rather than capturing and interrogating terrorists because we have nowhere to take them. The CIA’s black sites are closed and Gitmo is not taking any new arrivals.

If Mitt Romney, or any Republican other than Paul or Huntsman, is elected, that may quickly change. Guantanamo will not only stay open, but will very likely resume its original purpose as a strategic interrogation center where fresh captures are brought for exploitation—so we can get intelligence to stop new attacks. Precisely how the next president will overhaul U.S. detention and interrogation policy is a complicated question, but this much is certain: if Romney is elected, America will have a detention and interrogation policy again for the first time in four years.

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