Paul Nitze: Guest Opinion |

Paul Nitze: Guest Opinion

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Democrats have a come a long way on national security since the 2002 mid-term elections, but you wouldn’t know it from their knock-kneed performance in Congress this week. Today the president is to present the first part of his plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and move the remaining detainees elsewhere. The lack of a “comprehensive plan” is the alleged basis for House and Senate Democrats’ votes last week to strip out a provision in a defense spending bill that would provide funding to close Gitmo. That’s a fig leaf ” no plan is going to be good enough for them.

Election night 2002 was a very long night for Democrats, as we watched our Senate majority evaporate, the GOP take firmer control of the House, and the president gain a new mandate. Exit polls showed that on national security, the gap was astounding. Voters were deeply scarred by the 9/11 attacks, and trusted President Bush, not the Democrats, to protect them.

Karl Rove’s talk of a permanent Republican majority after the 2004 election now sounds like a laugh line, but Rove wasn’t just spinning. There are no permanent majorities in American politics, but the GOP had a shot at 20- to 30-year run, with national security as their premiere wedge issue. Squandering that edge took a lot of work, and was only accomplished via an historically incompetent White House and a corrupt Congress.

Voters gradually became convinced that the Bush national security team, helmed by Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, wasn’t making us safer. To the contrary, their policies were alienating our allies, trampling our constitutional values, and making it harder for us to fight successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last November, the exits told an entirely different story. Among voters who were either “very worried” or “somewhat worried” about another domestic terrorist attack, the GOP margin had shrunk from 30 points to around five points. Quite a slide.

Not that John McCain and his team shied away from hitting Sen. Obama hard on national security during the campaign. Cheney appeared on television to tell us that the terrorists were crossing their fingers for an Obama victory. Mitch McConnell mocked Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo, and painted a dark picture of terrorists running amok in the U.S. But this time around, the voters heard all the fear-mongering and … shrugged.

So we should be on our way to mothballing the detention facilities at Guantanamo, right? Nope. Not this year, and not in my back yard. That’s the message coming from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Not only are they actively obstructing the president from fulfilling his campaign promise, they are mouthing GOP talking points in their efforts to do.

This debate has nothing to do with whether there are facilities in the U.S. that could securely house terrorists. Escape data on federal prisons is hard to come by, but older data shows that during the second half of the 1990s, a grand total of one person escaped from a maximum security federal prison, out of an inmate population of more than 100,000. Compare this to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, where four suspected terrorists escaped in July 2005.

It has nothing to do with the procedural rights afforded terrorists locked up in U.S. prisons. Last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Boumediene v. Bush made clear that Gitmo detainees have a right to challenge their detention in federal court, and a lower-court decision extended that right to detainees at Bagram Air Force Base. The debate over how suspected terrorists will be tried continues, with the president recently stating he supports a modified military tribunal. While that issue is up in the air, the question of whether we can shut detainees out of our courts based on where we hold them is not.

Finally, it has nothing to do with whether terrorists will live in the lap of luxury at the super-max in Florissant, or at another federal prison. Those who’ve had occasion to study conditions at high-security federal prisons think detainees would have it worse than at Guantanamo. At the typical high-security federal prison, isolation is the norm for 22 hours out of the day, there’s virtually no communication with the outside world, and living conditions are spare, to say the least.

So what is it about, then? Mostly it’s about a worry that constituents will punish them for bringing terrorists into their communities, even if they are behind high fences and thick walls. And it’s about a fear that Republicans will score political points on the issue. How much more of a mandate do Congressional Democrats need than the election results last fall, when the president was already on the record that he’d close Guantanamo immediately upon taking office?

The same Democrats in Congress who now refuse to take the politically difficult step of moving the worst detainees out of Guantanamo and into U.S. prisons are those who latched onto the president’s lofty rhetoric last fall. These senators and representatives were happy to state that keeping Guantanamo open was a continuing smear to our reputation abroad and a symbol of the lawlessness and secrecy of the Bush administration. They just won’t do anything to fix it.

Few dispute that a minority of detainees at Guantanamo are truly dangerous and will try to attack us again if they’re released. That minority numbers no more than 200 individuals, and most estimates put the number at somewhere between 50 and 100. Democrats have a chance to put into place a system that holds them accountable and keeps them under lock and key for years, but in a way that’s lawful. That opportunity is being squandered.