Obama Administration special envoy describes the drawbacks of Guantanamo Bay

Among the changes that the election of President Donald Trump has ushered into the White House is a new attitude toward the highly controversial Guantanamo Bay. In contrast to President Obama, who pledged throughout his campaign and presidency to close the detention camp (often nicknamed GTMO or “Gitmo”), President Trump has indicated that he may attempt to increase the number of detainees there. Last Wednesday, the Thomas F. Fay Peace Through Law Endowment for Excellence and the Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted an event exploring these shifts.

Paul M. Lewis, who worked as Department of Defense Special Envoy for Guantanamo Detention Closure under the Obama Administration, delivered a talk entitled “Guantanamo Bay: Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Challenge.” The event was co-sponsored by the Notre Dame Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the International Human Rights Society, and the Notre Dame Chapter of the ACLU.

Lewis, who attended Notre Dame for undergraduate studies and law school (’80, ’83), began by reminding the audience that President Bush had also advocated for the closing of Guantanamo Bay. “Both presidents who’ve looked at Gitmo closely [Bush and Obama] have come to that conclusion [to try to close it],” said Lewis, since “the costs … outweigh the benefits.” Acknowledging changes since the election, he added, “The current president has said that he disagrees … I hope he reaches the same conclusion [as] the two previous presidents once he looks at the facts [and] looks at the intelligence.”

Lewis conceded that the general purpose of Guantanamo Bay is important. “If we use force as a nation, we’re going to have to detain people,” he said. “Everybody understands that. The issue is whether they should be detained at Guantanamo.”

As special envoy, Lewis helped bring the number of detainees from 242 to 41. Removed detainees have been transferred over time to different countries. Currently, said Lewis, five detainees are eligible to be transferred, and ten are undergoing prosecution. With these numbers, Lewis argued that a safe and secure alternative to Guantanamo Bay is both feasible and preferable.

Lewis then outlined four main reasons why he believes the detention camp should be permanently closed. Firstly, he said, maintaining Guantanamo Bay is exorbitant. “It’s over 10 million dollars a year per each detainee,” noted Lewis. “We could do it cheaper in the United States, and I submit that we could do it just as safe as we do at Gitmo.”

Secondly, Lewis continued, Guantanamo Bay could be used as a propaganda tool for terrorists. He described how foreign enemies can use images of the isolated camp with detainees in orange jump suits as a symbol against the United States.

Thirdly, Lewis stressed that Guantanamo “hurts us with our allies.” He supported this claim with personal experience: “Numerous times, when I went on trips … the governments, our colleagues, or allies, would say it’s just not sustainable.” Lewis acknowledged that these reactions might be informed by some exaggerated or skewed information, but the issue has become a negative symbol within foreign relations.

Finally, Lewis described “President Obama’s argument”: that Guantanamo is “against our values”—particularly regarding indefinite detainment without due process. Despite a professional board that now carries out a review process for each detainee, Guantanamo has a reputation for initially “keeping enemies off the battlefield” but then holding them for extensive periods of time, sometimes up to fifteen years.

In terms of alternatives to Guantanamo, Lewis cited a recent study from the Department of Justice that confirmed that the United States would be able to hold detainees safely. He repeatedly pointed to the successful transfer of detainees and furthermore highlighted the bipartisan support to close Guantanamo. For instance, Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) has especially supported the endeavor.

Looking ahead for the Trump administration, Lewis had a relatively optimistic outlook. “I am hopeful,” he said, “number one, that after time [President Trump] realizes that Gitmo is not the place, [since] it hurts us, and number two, at a minimum, [that] even if he takes people into Gitmo or takes people into detention, he realizes that he can still transfer them, that it’s not a one-way street.”

Sophia Buono is a junior PLS major and ESS minor. Before this talk, the extent of her knowledge about Guantanamo Bay mostly came from the movie A Few Good Men. To discuss the movie and/or related politics, contact Sophia at sbuono@nd.edu.