The Gitmo NIMBYs

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' chief legal analyst and legal editor.

Over the weekend, the White House floated the idea of constructing (or renovating) a vast court-and-prison complex in either Kansas or Michigan. The facility would be used to detain and prosecute terrorism suspects now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The leak followed published reports last week that the Justice Department is evaluating anew dozens of cases of Gitmo detainees to see if any more of the men should be prosecuted in American courtrooms under federal criminal law.

Both of these developments are perfectly logical, refreshingly practical and entirely consistent with the Obama administration’s promise to close Gitmo by the end of the year. For years, remember, the closure of the base has been a bipartisan goal, opposed only by the worst ideologues in both parties.

But now that we’re actually facing the tough moral and political choices necessary to closing Guantanamo, politicians are running for cover. Take Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The senior senator from the Sunflower State was cheering along with all the rest of us when President George W. Bush told us in late 2001 that we’d need to sacrifice in the name of winning the war on terror. Now, however, Brownback has gone into full Chicken Little mode, warning anyone who will listen that Gitmo should not be emptied and closed after all because it’s too dangerous to have prisoners at Ft. Leavenworth. “We don’t want them here,” he said on Monday. “They should be treated with dignity and humanely, but it shouldn’t it be here.”


This is the terror-law equivalent of a “not in my backyard” mentality that has thwarted the resolution of thorny issues in America for centuries. Except that the problem of what to do with the detainees is not like the problem of what to do with the nuclear waste bound for Yucca Mountain. The prisoners are men, mortals, and they won’t be around for a half-life. They aren’t even the “worst of the worst,” a grossly unfair label that men such as former Attys. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and John Ashcroft placed on them despite strong evidence to the contrary.

A great many terrorists have been successfully prosecuted and sentenced under federal criminal law -- both before and after Sept. 11, 2001. The roster of current maximum-security federal inmates reads like a Who’s Who of Terrorism: Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid, Jose Padilla, Ramzi Yousef, Ahmed Ressam (not to mention home-grown lovelies such as Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber).

If Gitmo detainees are transferred to Kansas, it will not become a battlefield for terrorists any more than Colorado has become a scene of carnage in the years since terror-convicts have been sent to the federal “supermax” facility there. The prisoners incarcerated in Kansas, before or after trial, would be part of a system that is as safe as the world has ever known. I have toured the supermax facility, and I defy anyone who also has done so to suggest that it, or a new, similar prison, could not safely house the prisoners until they die, are transferred elsewhere or are released.

Brownback’s got the scare tactics down, but what tangible proof does he have that bringing detainees to Kansas (or anywhere else in America, for that matter) will make Americans less safe? More pointedly, why does he think that keeping Gitmo a working prison for terror suspects is a better alternative than trying to disperse them in groups to the States for processing? We aren’t talking about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or Ramzi Binalshibh, remember, we are talking mostly about men who are used to being led, not to leading or planning.

It’s time for Brownback to become a statesman in the old-fashioned sense of that word, putting aside parochialism for the sake of the country. The senator shouldn’t be worrying his constituents that the sky will fall on them if more prisoners come there -- there already are more dangerous men in prison in Kansas than exist at Gitmo. Instead, he should be using his considerable rhetorical skills to sell his fellow Kansans on the idea that if the men are to be placed somewhere, it ought to be right there in the heartland, with its long tradition of housing dangerous prisoners safely and securely.

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama White House is doggedly trying to fix the mess caused by Guantanamo’s status as an international symbol of American excess. The White House and the departments of Defense and Justice should push these measures through, and lawmakers who oppose them should get out of the way.