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It Costs $72 Million A Year to Hold Cleared Prisoners at Guantánamo

Andy Worthington


November 19, 2011

Last week, the exorbitant expense of maintaining the Bush administration’s "war on terror" prison at Guantánamo was revealed in the Miami Herald, where Carol Rosenberg explained that Congress provided $139 million to operate the prison last year, which, with 171 prisoners still held, works out at $812,865 per prisoner, nearly 30 times as much as it costs to keep a prisoner in a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, where the cost per prisoner is $28,284 a year.

In a detailed explanation of the "expensive" and "inefficient" system at Guantánamo, retired Army Brig. Gen. Greg Zanetti, who was the prison’s deputy commander in 2008, said, "It’s a slow-motion Berlin Airlift — that’s been going on for 10 years." While stationed at Guantánamo, the Herald noted, "he wrote a secret study that compared the operation to Alcatraz, noting that Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had closed it in 1963 because it was too expensive."

Zanetti, who is now a Seattle-based money manager, pointed out that everything "from paper clips to bulldozers" has to be flown in, or brought in by boat, and argued that the cost of running the prison "deserves a cost-benefit analysis." He told Carol Rosenberg, "What complicates the overall command further is you have the lawyers, interrogators and guards all operating under separate budgets and command structures. It’s like combining the corporate cultures and budgets of Goldman, Apple and Coke. Business schools would have a field day dissecting the structure of Guantánamo."

Brig. Gen. Zanetti’s analysis certainly ought to provide an opportunity for critics of Guantánamo, in the administration and in Congress, to fight back against the prison’s cheerleaders, who have pushed hard to keep the prison open and to thwart President Obama’s poorly conceived — and failed — promise to close the prison within a year of taking office.

However, what was not specifically mentioned in this analysis was how, when calculating whether it is acceptable to be spending over $800,000 a head to keep 171 prisoners at Guantánamo, the American people might be interested to know that, while the government intends to try (or has tried) 36 of these men, and has decided to hold 46 others without charge or trial, it does not wish to detain 89 others.

Two years ago, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, comprising career officials and lawyers from government departments and the intelligence agencies, reviewed the files of all the prisoners to work out what to do with them, and concluded that 89 of the 171 remaining prisoners should be released.

Last year, the cost of holding those 89 prisoners was $72,345,029.

If anyone is looking to save money, therefore, they might wish to examine why it is that these 89 men are still held, although they will discover that the answers do not reflect well on either the administration or Congress. Although all of these men were "approved for transfer" out of Guantánamo by the Task Force, 31 of them are still held because it is not safe for them to be repatriated, as they face the risk of torture in their home countries, or because Congress has blocked their release, and the rest are Yemenis, whose release has also been blocked — by the President and by Congress.

The details of the 31 men, who are from a variety of countries, are not entirely clear, because the administration has not publicly identified who has been "approved for transfer." However, it is clear that this group includes the last five Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), who won their habeas corpus petitions over three years ago, in October 2008.

Since then 12 other Uighurs have been released — in Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland — but the five remain because they refused the new homes they were offered, fearing that they would not be safe from the long reach of the Chinese government. No other country has offered to take them, and President Obama, his Justice Department, Congress and the Supreme Court have all made it clear that they have no desire to offer them — or any other refugee in Guantánamo — a home in the United States, the country that wrongly imprisoned them in the first place.

Others are from countries with dubious human rights records — Syria, for example — and others are almost certainly victims of a restriction included by Congress as part of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, in which, as the Washington Post explained in an article last week, lawmakers "demanded that the defense secretary certify that he would 'ensure’ that a freed 'individual cannot engage or re-engage in any terrorist activity.’" As Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, explained in a speech last month at the Heritage Foundation, "This provision is onerous and near impossible to satisfy."

Outside of these 31 individuals, the 58 Yemenis are also subjected to the problems highlighted by Jeh Johnson, and are saddled with other problems too. Although 28 of them could have been sent home with seven of their compatriots the week before Christmas in 2009, a failed attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb in his underwear derailed plans for their release, apparently indefinitely.

In respond to an uproar following a revelation that the man in question, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, President Obama bowed to pressure and issued a moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis from Guantánamo. This shows no sign of being dropped, even though some of the men "approved for transfer" by Obama’s Task Force were first approved for release from Guantánamo by a military review board under the Bush administration in 2004, and even though blanket bans of this sort are nothing less than "guilt by nationality."

For the remaining 30 Yemenis, a further obstacle to their release is that, although they too were "approved for transfer," the Task Force created a special category for them, declaring that they should be held in "conditional detention" at Guantánamo until the security situation in Yemen improved.

With such obstacles, it is uncertain when any of these 89 prisoners will be released, but in the meantime, as American justice groans under the burden of layers of dubious impositions designed to prevent the release of any of these men — whether innocent, cleared by a court, or cleared by Bush’s military review boards seven years ago — America’s coffers are also suffering. This is not just because of the $72 million that it cost to hold these men last year, but also because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that it has cost to hold them for nearly ten years, or the billions of dollars that — in total — have been spent on holding them and hundreds of other prisoners already released.

On the other hand, if you prefer to look to the future rather than the past, as President Obama does, then you may wish to reflect on the billions of dollars that will be spent on holding these men in future — as the years turn into decades, and they begin to die of old age — until someone in authority finds a way to bring this dark and disgraceful farce to an end.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, "The Complete Guantánamo Files," a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

:: Article nr. 83268 sent on 20-nov-2011 22:07 ECT


:: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website.

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