Cliff May

The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay was established in 2002 to hold the most dangerous of those captured in what the Bush administration called the Global War on Terrorism. Controversy over the facility has simmered ever since. In recent days, it has begun to boil. One hundred detainees, at last count, are staging a hunger strike.

Their lawyers, along with self-proclaimed human-rights activists, are insisting that the U.S. respond by closing Guantanamo, something President Obama has long been eager to do. The questions seldom asked: How would that be accomplished? And what would it solve?

Closing Gitmo would, fairly obviously, require moving out those now detained. But where would they go? We could transfer them to prisons in the U.S., but is there anyone who seriously believes that once on American soil these detainees would become hearty eaters and happy campers?

More likely, having learned that refusing food brings concessions, they would use that strategy again and again. U.S. prison officials would respond as have U.S. military authorities at Gitmo: letting the prisoners protest by not eating (that’s their right), but not letting them die — instead, restraining them, if necessary, and administering the nutrition their bodies require. The not-so-nice term for that: force feeding.

In any case, the option of sending detainees from Gitmo to American prisons is moot for now because Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is adamantly opposed. Four years ago this month, the Senate voted 90 to 6 against spending the money necessary to close the facility in Guantanamo.

A second option: Let the detainees go. A little background may clarify why this, too, is not feasible. The Bush administration brought 779 prisoners to Guantanamo. By the time Obama became president there were 240 left — about two-thirds had been transferred to their home countries or to a third country willing to take responsibility for them. But in some cases, neither of those options was available because it is U.S. policy not to turn detainees over to regimes that might summarily execute or otherwise abuse them. (Remember the Uighur detainees who ended up in Bermuda because U.S. authorities would not send them to China?)


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.