Guantanamo's Shadow

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign policy authorities about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Has the prison system at Guantanamo Bay helped or hurt the United States in its fight against al-Qaeda?
87% Hurt

“Nothing has hurt America’s image and standing in the world—and nothing has undermined the global effort to combat nihilistic terrorism—than the brutal torture and dehumanizing actions of Americans in Abu Ghraib and in other prisons (secret or otherwise). America can win the fight against terrorism only if it acts in ways consistent with the values for which it stands; if its behavior descends to the level employed by the terrorists, then we have all become them instead of us.”

“Gitmo has hurt the US in two different ways. At the strategic level, it has undercut the U.S. case around the world that we represent a world view and a set of values that all can admire, even those who do not wish to replicate our system and society in their own countries. Gitmo has become a symbol for cruelty and inhumanity that is repugnant to a wide sector of the world community and a powerful tool that al Qaeda can use to damage US interest and recruit others to its cause. At the tactical level, Gitmo deludes many in the US, an never more than the senior leaders of the Bush Administration, into believing that harsh interrogation techniques can produce good intelligence and is a necessary tool in fighting terrorist. This 'truth' spread from Gitmo to Iraq and we have paid a horrible price for it.”

“It has hurt America disastrously. The so-called global war on terrorism depends fundamentally on America's moral authority, so that other nations will want to cooperate with us. Guantanamo has become a vibrant symbol of American exceptionalism, but this exceptionalism is unwanted around the world.”

“this one is so basic. i speak as a republican so this is not a partisan comment. the founders would be rightly ashamed of us. we have forgotten, as truman and eisenhower never did, that america's power is as much about what it stands for as for its hard power characteristics. this has all been put in the worst kind of peril by Gitmo.”

“The controversies that have surrounded the system have outweighed any benefit. The main reason for locating the facility at Guantanamo—to attempt to keep it out of the reach of anyone's legal system—was never justifiable.”

“The Guantanamo system has hurt the U.S. and our fight against Al Qaeda. We have abandoned the moral high ground and, through our actions, have become one of the principle recruiting agents for Islamic extremism.”

“Our strongest asset internationally was our reputation and credibility on human rights. We have squandered that.”

“Hurt, on balance, because it has severely damaged our moral case in the world, which we have to have in order to rally support for combating Al Qaeda.”

“Both in the obvious public relations way, worldwide, and quite directly, in showing Al Qaeda that we can very easily and quickly be seduced into wild overreactions. That is just what Osama Bin Laden hoped. Since it worked so well, he has an incentive to repeat."

“It has done enormous damage to our reputation and soft power.”

13% Helped

“The main purposes of Gitmo detention are (1) to allow effective interrogation to provide intelligence for the war on terrorism and (2) to keep dangerous terrorism locked up. Gitmo has helped because it has achieved both purposes. The administration has not done a good job of explaining to the public what it was doing at Gitmo or why—and that has caused some unnecessary problems. But interrogating captured terrorists and keeping them detained and off the battlefield is undeniably important to our security.”

“Islamists fear humiliation more than death.”

“[It has] helped immeasurably with actionable intelligence.”


“[We] can't evaluate without knowing more than anyone on the outside can possibly know at this point.”

“The real answer is, both helped and hurt. In the year or two after 9/11, Gitmo was a reasonable response to what we faced—it helped. But it has gone on too long, the process of thinning the population down to the justifiable hard core has taken too long, and it has become an easy target for a world in which 9/11 is a fading memory—in that sense, it is now hurting.”

“This is a complex subject that makes answering question 1 very difficult. I would say that it has helped and hurt. It's helped in that we have gotten some good intelligence from the detainees. In addition, having them at one site enabled better protection for the detainees, consistency of care and processes, and provided focus for the International Red Cross.

On the other hand, the perception is such that Guantanamo is a negative in many part of the world, especially the Arab world.”

What should the United States do with the remaining detainees at Guantanamo?
53% Try them in a civil or an international court

“The military tribunals have no international credibility. And we must have some legal resolution to this mess.”

“Ideally, but it won't happen. Next best would be release them to their home countries, but not to countries known to torture or do other things of which we officially disapprove. Otherwise, no gain.”

“There are, undoubtedly, people in Guantanamo guilty of heinous crimes. But we live in a system where that determination is made not by the whims of an executive but rather by a court of law. Our failure to live up to this sacred and essential principle has eroded our standing in the world, and the sooner we demonstrate that we are a nation of laws in fact the better.”

“Try them, if there is a case. Otherwise, release them.”

“If we have evidence on them, we have nothing to fear and a lot to gain by holding proper trials. They will show our 'bona fides' to the world, which now are badly tarnished.”

37% Process each one through the military tribunal system

“A fair and transparent military tribunal system should have been an integral part from the beginning, but as with so much about Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration never thought beyond first moves. We are, as the President often acknowledges, involved in a conflict with a movement. This movement has global aspirations. While any defeat of such a movement will be a decades long struggle, it will come through a superior political strategy, not through just trying to kill or lock away terrorists. Gitmo does great harm to any effective US political strategy against terrorism.”

“To give them access to civil courts would be to succumb to what Al Queda calls their strategy of 'lawfare.' As the 9/11 report explained, giving the Blind Sheik and his accomplices access to the civil courts was a significant element in the success of the second attack on the World Trade Center.”

“Process them through the military tribunal system, but ensure it accords the detainees due process.”

“[The other] options are insane, so I guess that leaves [the tribunal system].”

“…or have Congress create a special terrorist court system.”

10% Release them to their home countries

“This is the right course, but it is easier said than done. Some countries don't want their nationals back; they represent nothing but trouble, and it is easier to throw stones at GITMO than to figure out what to do with them. Those that do want their nationals back need to undertake some steps that could range from rehabilitation to monitoring to continued confinement. Working out those arrangements, in a way that gives confidence about consistency and compliance, is harder than most critics know or would acknowledge.”


“Case by case. bury some; send some to be buried; try some; release some.”

“Your question misses a key point: One of the main purposes of detaining terrorists is simply to keep them locked up so they cannot commit murder. It is lawful for us to hold enemies captured in a war and we can do so without trial until such time as the war is over. We are not required to release them to their home countries or to try them.”

“All of the above. If the military tribunal system has value, it is as a vetting procedure to separate those detainees against whom a criminal case can be constructed from those who were swept up but against whom no such case can be made. The former should be tried in regular courts, and the latter should be returned to their home countries.”

“They are POWs; they should be released when the war ends.”

“You can't release them to their home countries either because the home countries won't agree to keep them from rejoining the battle or because the home countries won't treat them well (in some cases they'll likely kill them). They have been processed through the tribunal system at this point. Trying those alleged to have committed war crimes could be done in the tribunal system or in civil courts, providing the evidence could be unclassified. The problem is most of the detainees are illegal enemy combatants, not accused of war crimes, so the only alternative is to hold them until the end of the conflict. In this 'long war' that is a long way off.

"The detainees left at Guantanamo would kill our children or grandchildren if released. The one option that is not acceptable in my view is to simply release them or put them in a court system where release is a possibility due to the inability to produce unclassified evidence.”

“Different solutions for different individuals depending on the evidence behind the attention and the capacity of home countries to handle them.”

PARTICIPANTS (41):Kenneth Adelman, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Stephen Bosworth, Daniel Byman, Warren Christopher, Wesley Clark, Richard Clarke, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Douglas Feith, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, Laura Holgate, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Tony Judt, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Edward Luttwak, John McLaughlin, Richard Myers, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Paul Pillar, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, Anne-Marie Slaighter, James Steinberg, Anthony Zinni.

Because of rounding, totals do not always add up to 100%.