Closing Guantanamo is way harder than you think

Closing Gitmo is the right decision; now the really hard work starts.

by Matthew Waxman

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama suspended military commissions at the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and it is widely expected that later this week he will order its closure. That's the right thing to do. So is leaving options open to get it done, as Obama has. He'll need that flexibility. Proclaiming an intention to close Guantánamo is the easy part; actually doing it is another thing. Even harder will be crafting a new detention policy and legal regime for a post-Guantánamo world. And Obama has offered few details of how he will do so.

A few major elements of the new administration's Guantánamo closure plan are already clear. First, as to those detainees who are not considered the most dangerous, it will step up efforts to transfer them to their home countries (or third countries) that can be trusted to deal with any continuing security threat and not mistreat them. The Bush administration has already sent home two thirds of the roughly 800 total Guantánamo detainees this way, and the new administration hopes its diplomatic goodwill will energize this process.

Second, as to those detainees it seeks to keep locked up, the new administration will pore over the evidence to see if criminal prosecutions can be brought effectively in federal court and without risking disclosure of critical intelligence sources and methods.

The big question is what to do with any detainees who are too dangerous or heinous to send home but who cannot be effectively prosecuted. Some expect this category to be very small, maybe even zero. Don't rest assured. The recent withdrawal of charges against the alleged "20th hijacker," Mohamed al-Kahtani, due to his improper treatment at the hands of interrogators is but one example of the difficulties Obama will face. The government has expanded criminal statutes for terrorism since 9/11, and courts have gained experience in handling terrorism trials. But even when the information linking some of the most dangerous suspects to al Qaeda terrorism is reliable, it may not be usable or admissible in court.

If federal prosecutions aren't workable in many cases, and releasing the most dangerous detainees is ruled out, the new administration has several options -- all of them with significant downsides. It could continue to hold current and future detainees in U.S. facilities as "enemy combatants" and let current habeas corpus litigation continue through the courts. Or it could try to prosecute them in reformed military commissions with more lenient evidentiary rules. But both these options look much like the deeply discredited Bush administration policy, only moved inside U.S. borders.

Another option would be to work with Congress on new legislation authorizing "administrative detention" for periods of time of a carefully limited category of detainees, pursuant to strict standards and robust judicial review. Opponents of this approach justifiably worry that such laws would institutionalize detention without trial.

Any closure plan will entail risks and difficult trade-offs. The new administration should not hurry to adopt new detention schemes that lack the established features and protections of American criminal trials. But nor should it rule out legal tools that might durably protect both liberty and security within constitutional and international legal bounds. Either way, the thorny problems of detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects picked up in lawless regions or amid covert intelligence operations will persist long after the 250 remaining Guantánamo cases are resolved. Obama may close Guantánamo, but the complex legal and policy challenges that led to its creation are not going away anytime soon.

Matthew Waxman is associate professor at Columbia Law School, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. He previously held senior positions at the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council.

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