The Magazine

Clear and Present Danger

The Obama administration is about to discover that the terrorists detained at Guantánamo are there for good reason.

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On Sunday, November 16, CBS News's 60 Minutes broadcast the first interview with President-elect Barack Obama. The exchange touched on a wide range of topics, from Obama's distaste for college football's computerized selection of a national champion to his plans for changing course in economic and foreign policy. At one point, Obama was asked about the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He responded:

I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo, and I will follow through on that. I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture and I'm going to make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world.

The president-elect's comments were not surprising. He had often promised on the campaign trail to close Guantánamo. And in the days before the 60 Minutes broadcast, anonymous officials from his transition team had let the press know that the president-elect would deliver on his pledge. They cannot yet say what the Obama administration will do with the 250 or so detainees still being held, but according to the Washington Post, the new team will review the government's files on each detainee and make a determination case by case.

Whatever happens to the detainees, the important point for much of the commentariat is that Guantánamo will be shuttered. For Guantánamo's many critics, the facility long ago became a symbol of all that is wrong with the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terror-from its cowboy-like unilateralism to its alleged widespread torture and abuse of terrorist suspects. That many dangerous enemies lurk in Guantánamo's cells has often been a secondary concern, if a concern at all. Thus, when President-elect Obama spoke of regaining "America's moral stature in the world," he was endorsing the widespread perception of Guantánamo as an American sin that originated in the Bush administration's overreaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

This perception, however, was always skewed. The new administration will soon discover from its review of the Guantánamo files what motivated its predecessor: The scope of the terrorist threat was far greater than anyone knew on September 11, 2001. But for the Bush administration's efforts, many more Americans surely would have perished.

This conclusion is based on a careful review of the thousands of pages of documents released from Guantánamo, as well as other publicly available evidence. In 2006, the Department of Defense began to release the documents to the public via its website. The files had been created during the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) and Administrative Review Board (ARB) hearings held for nearly 600 detainees. This unclassified cache includes both the government's allegations against each detainee and summarized transcripts of the detainees' testimony. Although the documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Associated Press, the intelligence contained in the files was largely ignored by the mainstream press for more than two years. Thus, the New York Times reported only the day before the recent presidential election that the files contain "sobering intelligence claims against many of the remaining detainees."

Indeed, they do. When the Obama administration reviews the Guantánamo files, here is what it will find.


The most dangerous men currently incarcerated at Guantánamo are the 14 "high value" detainees. The Bush administration gave them this designation because they are uniquely lethal, having planned and participated in the most devastating terrorist attacks in history. Their collective dossier includes, among other attacks, 9/11, the American embassy bombings (August 7, 1998), the USS Cole bombing (October 12, 2000), and the Bali bombings (October 12, 2002). They are responsible for murdering thousands of civilians around the globe, from the eastern United States to Southeast Asia. Had they not been captured, they surely would have murdered thousands more.

The 14 were originally held not at Guantánamo, but at even more controversial black sites. And the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have sparked international outrage were principally designed for them. One may doubt the necessity and morality of these techniques, including waterboarding, while still recognizing a fundamentally important point: The 14 high value detainees are not ordinary criminals, but perpetrators of an entirely different order of evil.