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April 15, 2015

Guantanamo is Not an Intelligence Asset

When Senator Marco Rubio told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News that he would keep the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba open to accept new terror suspects for imprisonment, he explained he believed this was necessary in order to obtain information from them, instead of just killing them. 

"We no longer, on an ongoing basis, detain terrorists, and so we're not getting interrogation,” said Rubio. “They're killed by a drone, or they're targeted in some other way, but there's tremendous value in capturing people that are enemy combatants and, from them, being able to gather actionable intelligence that can not only prevent attacks against the homeland and abroad, but allow us to disrupt their cells that they've created in different parts of the world."

Senator Rubio makes a good point: interrogating suspected terrorists is better than killing them, in part because detained suspects can provide the United States important information that dead ones can’t. But that does not necessarily mean the United States should keep the Guantanamo Bay detention center open for that purpose. The government has a High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG)—made up of specialists from the FBI, CIA, State and Defense Departments—that was specifically created to interrogate top terrorism suspects and obtain critical information from them, both at home and abroad. As the recent indictment of suspected al Qaeda operative Muhanad Mahmoud al Farekh in Brooklyn demonstrates, even someone the Pentagon deemed a proper drone target can be captured, interrogated, and brought to justice right here in the United States.

Indeed, the al Farekh case itself is based on the cooperation of three anonymous witnesses, some of whom participated in terrorism and provided the Department of Justice critical information to support the prosecution of al Farekh. Each of those witnesses agreed to cooperate with the government, and, according to the indictment in the case, has given reliable information that has been extensively corroborated by multiple forms of evidence. Because all three have reached an agreement with the FBI, they could face life imprisonment if they provide false information. 

None of this is unusual: indeed, it’s typical of how U.S. counterterrorism operations work. A combination of skillful detective work, extensive interrogation experience, and the ability to provide both powerful incentives and harsh punishments have led the Department of Justice—working with the military and other national security agencies and departments—to be extraordinarily successful in prosecuting terrorism cases. Since the 9/11 attacks the Justice Department has convicted more than 500 individuals on terrorism-related charges. Many are serving life sentences.

Compare that to the track record of the military commission system set up after 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay. That quasi-justice system has convicted only eight individuals since its creation, and four of those convictions have been overturned on appeal. Only three of the men convicted remain at the prison.

Senator Rubio is right to be concerned about the United States killing suspected terrorists overseas unnecessarily. But the most effective way is not detention and interrogation at Guantanamo.  Indeed, senior military and intelligence leaders have called for Guantanamo to be closed precisely because it undermines counterterrorism cooperation from other countries, and serves as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. 

When it comes to the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, the record shows that Guantanamo is not the answer. Experienced interrogators and federal courts in the United States are the far more reliable solution.