As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama spoke repeatedly about the importance of closing our military's prisoner detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One of his first acts after becoming president was to announce it would be shuttered within a year.
It's still operating.
But should it be? That question was on my mind more than three years ago, when I was invited to tour Gitmo with a group of public figures, journalists and others.
At the time, the facility held some 400 enemy combatants captured on battlefields in and around Afghanistan. These men were among the most dangerous enemies our country had, yet they were being treated fairly and humanely.
Detainees enjoyed healthy meals, containing as much as 4,200 calories a day. One had packed on more than 100 pounds. When some detainees went on a hunger strike for political purposes, the military consulted with experts and set up an involuntary-feeding system.
Doctors even adjusted the detainees' feeding schedule so that, during Ramadan, they wouldn't be getting any sustenance during daylight hours. Our facility was not only working to protect the lives of our enemies, it was upholding their religious traditions as well.
Today, some 190 prisoners remain, and there's no timetable for moving them off the island. Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that if detainees captured outside of Afghanistan are sent to the U.S. detention facility in Bagram, those detainees would have the right to appeal for habeas corpus (relief from detention) in U.S. federal courts. Since that decision, the administration has been reluctant to ship terrorists captured outside of Afghanistan to Bagram.
The administration's commitment to close Gitmo created a self-inflicted problem: The Pentagon has no place to put captured enemy combatants. "We've been trying to decide this for over a year," an unnamed "senior military officer" recently told The Washington Post. Operations are more difficult, the officer says, "when you don't have a detention policy or a set of facilities."
Perhaps as a consequence, the administration has stepped up the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan. There were 55 last year, almost double the total from 2008. Dead terrorists are better than live ones, usually. But this policy also means our military can't obtain critical operational and strategic intelligence through lawful interrogation.
It's frightening that the administration doesn't have a policy in place to deal with any high-value terrorists captured outside of Afghanistan. Just a few months ago, Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was asked what would happen if or when the U.S. captures Osama bin Laden, Holder responded, "It depends."
Translation: "I don't know."
An administration that has no plan for dealing with a man who's been public enemy number 1 for a decade certainly has no idea of what to do with lesser, but also important, terrorists either. Yet it's simply a matter of time before we catch a high value terrorist outside of Afghanistan. Our military and intelligence professionals need guidance and clear plans on where to take him and the legal framework in which to operate.
Cully Stimson of The Heritage Foundation, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs recently wrote that before the administration closes Gitmo, it should take at least two big steps.
First, it should "conduct a comprehensive review of all detainees released from Guantanamo and the confirmed recidivism rates of those graduates, and share the information in classified briefings with appropriate Members of Congress." Policymakers need to know how many former detainees took up combatant activity and who they fought with.
Second, Stimson writes, the administration should "conduct an honest and comprehensive review of all diplomatic and other agreements entered into between the U.S. and countries that have received Guantanamo detainees." Policymakers need to understand which countries are fulfilling their obligations, and which aren't. That way, we can stop returning detainees to those nations.
The war on terrorism will be a long fight. To win, we'll need to know what to do with the enemies we capture alive.
(Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.)