President Barack Obama has fast tracked closing the multi-million dollar American constructed and controlled detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Ok, so now where do all the bad guys go after Gitmo shuts its doors?
It’s a question that’s long plagued Brigadier General Greg Zanetti who from January 2008 to January 2009 was the deputy commander of Gitmo.
“These are bad men,” General Zanetti told me after his recent return to his native Albuquerque, New Mexico. “There is an edge to these guys Americans just don’t understand.” In a slow, emphatic voice he said, “They want us dead.”
And without quite saying it I got the feeling General Zanetti meant the new President is among those who don’t “get it.”
General Zanetti, a West Point graduate with a military resume a mile long, knows all about the Gitmo gang. He’s walked among them, read their background files and knows them by name. As we sat in a hotel lounge, he nursing a Cuban rum and Coke, Zanetti gave me a quick history lesson full of perspective.
Right after the September 11th attacks “we were an angry nation,” he says. We went to the battlefield and scooped up hundreds of enemy combatants. Some were thought to be so valuable they were taken to secret places in secret countries and, reportedly, life saving intelligence was extracted. Does the General think we used torture to get it? He won’t go there. But he says nearly every man picked up by U.S. forces praised the 9-11 terrorists and would gleefully have killed more Americans to earn their spot on the martyr list.
“There have been a total of about 770 enemy combatants arrive at Gitmo,” Zanetti told me. Over the years some were determined to be low level threats and released, others were sent back to their home countries for further imprisonment or into the welcoming arms of their old terror buddies who declared them to be “The Heroes of Guantanamo!” Recent reports conclude more than 60 ex-Gitmo residents have returned to their terrorist ways.
Today Gitmo holds just 250 enemy combatants. They are the 250 no American prison wants and no foreign country will claim.
They are the worst of the worst according to the General who watched as they bit, kicked, elbowed, or threw their feces and vomit on his New Mexico national guardsmen who went to Cuba with Zanetti for the one year tour of duty.
“Most Americans don’t understand that the mistreatment at Gitmo is prisoner on guard,” not the other way around.
The detainees enjoy what Zanetti called “A Hogan’s Heroes type camp … like an old age home for terrorists,” he said.
They aren’t locked away in cells 24/7. They have communal rooms where they mingle and enjoy their native periodicals. There are ocean views, flat screen televisions and some prisoners are allowed to grow their own food. Their Korans and Muslim prayer rugs are brought out five times a day and a cultural adviser is on hand to guide the menu for the several feast days they mark each month, complete with traditional dishes of lamb and cucumber sauces.
While they mingle they continue to scheme against the U.S. according to the General. They’ve learned, sometimes from their own American appointed lawyers, that the most effective way to continue the revolution is to turn our system against us.
They engage in a strategic legal and media war designed to paint themselves as victims. We saw it during the disruptive trial of Zacarias Moussaoui and we will surely see it again if there are more civilian trials here. And what would happen if a trial technicality actually set a terrorist free?
But the undeniable and unpleasant fact is that the United States has held these men for years, without charges, without trials and that is, most certainly, not the American way.
“I am bothered by the prolonged detentions,” the General said. But, he explained, Gitmo has hosted scores of foreign delegations – from the International Red Cross, Russia, Middle Eastern and several European countries. Only Saudi Arabia took their prisoners back and repatriated them, giving them homes and cars if they behaved themselves. In fact, the General told me, when the delegation from Yemen arrived several of the majority Yemeni prisoners pointed at the representatives and declared, “That’s the person who recruited me to fight!” None was taken home.
President Obama seems certain some countries will step forward but I don’t see a line forming at Gitmo’s door.
There is still the possibility of holding military trials but what happens if the defendant is found guilty? He’ll have to be jailed somewhere and the community N.I.M.B.Y. (Not In My Back Yard) protests are in full swing at the most often mentioned U.S. locations: Leavenworth, Colorado’s Super-max penitentiary and the Naval Brig in South Carolina.
Gee, maybe Gitmo isn’t so bad after all.