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Gunning for Gitmo
Scripps Howard News Service


June 14, 2006

It's difficult to say what motivates someone to take his own life, but when three Islamic militants coordinate their suicides, as happened recently at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, there is at least a basis for speculation.

Give these self-described holy warriors their due: As devout Muslims they would have viewed suicide as a grave sin. What would not have been taboo: "martyrdom," self-sacrifice to further the jihad against the infidels.

If that was their goal, they succeeded. They gave momentum to an international campaign to shut Gitmo down which would mean the release of their comrades. To a committed jihadi, such an achievement would be preferable to spending years praying, watching television and playing volleyball.

The editors of the editorial page of The New York Times interpret this incident differently. They blame President Bush for the suicides. They claim that at Gitmo he built "a netherworld of despair beyond the laws of civilized nations, where men were to be held without any hope of decent treatment, impartial justice or, in so many cases, even eventual release." A serious accusation - one that is not supported by the evidence.

American officials acknowledge that Gitmo, when it was first opened to al Qaeda detainees, was a rough place, though the most shocking allegations - from Koran-flushing to torture - did not stand up to scrutiny. Since then, the U.S. military has learned a lot about holding and interrogating dangerous prisoners.

Who says so? Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), no friend of the Bush administration. He recently acknowledged that conditions at Gitmo have "improved considerably." ICRC representatives now have unfettered access to detainees. Those detainees also are permitted to retain lawyers - something not allowed in previous wars - and to communicate with their families back home.

The ICRC does have a disagreement with Washington. The ICRC wants detainees at Gitmo regarded as "prisoners of war." Washington prefers to call them "enemy combatants."

The ICRC's view is that no matter how egregiously individuals violate the laws of war - for example by intentionally targeting civilians and using civilians as shields - they are nevertheless entitled to the same privileges due honorable soldiers who risk their lives to protect non-combatants. Under the Geneva Convention, POWs cannot be interrogated (other than name, rank, date of birth and serial number) and must be granted a range of benefits, including cooking utensils, musical instruments and a cash stipend (at U.S. taxpayer expense).

The administration's view is that those who slit the throats of aid workers and dispatch suicide bombers to slaughter women and children have no claim to such privileges.

That does not imply they are mistreated. In fact, detainees who don't threaten Americans and who answer questions are housed in Camp 4 which has volleyball and basketball courts, a library, televisions with video recorders, and meals prepared in accord with Muslim religious requirements; desserts, too. They are free to be outside from 7 a.m. to midnight. They receive excellent medical care.

Those who are belligerent, however, are confined to Camp 1 where they get three religiously appropriate meals a day (though no ice cream and cake), the same medical care, and a Koran. Life in Camp 1 is no doubt dreary, but so what? Do militants who are both uncooperative and unrepentant deserve Club Med?

Critics say: But how do we know these prisoners are militants? How do we know they are not innocents picked up by mistake? Any prison anywhere in the world may contain within its walls people who don't belong there. But those detained at Gitmo appear before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that determines their status based on "a preponderance of information."

There also is an Administrative Review Board that annually reviews their classification and decides whether to continue their detentions, transfer them elsewhere (e.g. back to their home country for incarceration) or approve their unrestricted release. These procedures go beyond what is required under Geneva - even if the U.S. were to agree that terrorists merit POW status.

According to senior government officials, valuable intelligence on terrorist organizations has been coming out of Gitmo. In addition, among the approximately 550 enemy combatants detained there are more than a few who would take up arms again if they were let go - as prisoners released from Guantanamo have done in the past.

None of this carries weight with the Times' editors and many other administration critics. Perhaps they don't believe this is a real war. Or perhaps they think it is a matter of indifference which side wins.


Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,
a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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