A hunger strike by Guantanamo Bay detainees has now passed the 100-day mark, increasing pressure on President Barack Obama to shut down the controversial detention facility – something he promised to do even before he took his first oath of office. During an April 30 press briefing, Obama reiterated that promise, telling reporters that Guantanamo not only hurts U.S. international standing but impacts America’s ability to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with its allies.
Judge Alberto R. Gonzales served as United States attorney general under and counsel to President George W. Bush. Today he holds the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law at Belmont University and serves as counsel at the Weller law firm in Nashville, Tennessee. VOA reporter Cecily Hilleary spoke to him by phone and asked him whether he agrees with President Obama on the need to close down Guantanamo. Below please find the transcribed interview. You can also listen to it using the audio player at the bottom of this post.
Gonzales: I disagree with many of the president’s statements, but I do agree with the fact that we need to close down Guantanamo. The problem the United States has, of course, is that there is not a viable alternative at this moment, and because the need continues to detain captured enemy combatants somewhere, we need to continue to have Guantanamo open.
You know, in my recent Hill column, I wrote about the fact that President Bush was likewise desirous of closing Guantanamo, and I talked about the fact that Don Rumsfeld, our former secretary of defense, he didn’t want the military to be the world’s jailor. So there was a great desire by the Bush administration to also close Guantanamo, but again, because there wasn’t a viable option that we could identify, it continued to remain open.
And the same is true for President Obama’s administration. There’s a desire to close Guantanamo. But what is a better option than Guantanamo? And apparently, like us, the Obama administration has struggled to find a viable alternative.
President Bush made the calculation – when the war on terror began – that our number one priority would be to prevent another attack, prevent another loss of lives, and that secondary to that would be bringing people to justice… that’s the balance that he believed was appropriate and necessary.
Hilleary: You have said that you oppose some of the things that the president has said. He has said that Guantanamo casts America in a bad light – how do you feel about that?
Gonzales: I think that probably in the beginning there was a lot of misinformation about what was going on at Guantanamo, but anyone who’s been there today, the facilities are as good if not better than some of the state and local facilities in the United States, and so many of the Military Commission procedures are very similar to Article 2 procedures in the United States, and so I think people have a perception of Guantanamo perhaps the way it used to be. I think the conditions there are much better today.
I think another reason that people might have concern about Guantanamo – or simply have a sort of a knee-jerk reaction against Guantanamo – is because they simply don’t agree with the notion that a country should be able to detain people that it captures indefinitely without charges. And I think for some people, they react negatively to that and view Guantanamo as a symbolic event. Of course, that ignores a long-standing tradition, long-standing tenet of international law that under the laws of war, countries who capture people fighting against them can detain them indefinitely, without charges, for the duration of hostilities, which is what’s ongoing now at Guantanamo. So I understand that people don’t like Guantanamo. I don’t like Guantanamo. But again, it continues to exist because of a need for it, and I think a lot of the negative reaction is a negative reaction is a misunderstanding of the way conditions are today. And also I think a reaction to this notion that we are continuing to hold people that have been captured, that we continue to hold them indefinitely without charges – which we are allowed to do under international law.
“I continue to believe that right now these prisoners are receiving all the rights that they are entitled to. They are receiving good treatment – certainly the treatment that they are entitled to under international and domestic law.” – Alberto R. Gonzales
Hilleary: We may be allowed to do it, but why haven’t we prosecuted those that we have deemed prosecutable?
Gonzales: Well, that’s a question that you will have to ask the government and the prosecutors. Obviously there are issues. There are always going to be issues relating to what evidence can you introduce at trial without jeopardizing sensitive sources and methods, and these are all issues that are weighed in making decisions about prosecutions. Do we provide, for example, a platform for these detainees to put the United States on trial for the war on terror? You know, these are all things that have to be weighed in connection with the decision to move forward with the prosecution.
You know, President Bush made the calculation – when the war on terror began – that our number one priority would be to prevent another attack, prevent another loss of lives, and that secondary to that would be bringing people to justice. And he understood that because of some of the measures that we took, which were successful in protecting American lives, that it would present additional challenges for prosecutors in terms of bringing them to justice at a later date. He understood that, but that’s the balance that he believed was appropriate and necessary. Because, again, as far as he was concerned, we were going to do everything necessary, lawful under the law to protect against another attack.
Hilleary: There have been some options that have been proposed, such as moving the – to use the old phrase, “worst of the worst” – to, for example, supermax prisons [i.e. super-maximum security prisons”]. Do you find that to be a viable option or not?
Gonzales: Well, I think some people have said, ‘Gosh, what about the security of the guards, the security of the other prisoners?’ I think that we have the capability to provide for the safety of these individuals and to provide for the safety of the surrounding communities. But the truth of the matter is that if you move them to one facility like supermax, the supermax will become the next symbol of American oppression. Because I think the enemy has shown that it will use anything that we do as a recruiting tool, as a way to criticize the United States.
The other concern is of course that once you bring them into the United States, they very well may have additional constitutional plans against this country, and I talked to you earlier about the very real possibility that these terrorists will put the United States on trial in connection with any kind of subsequent criminal proceedings.
My own sense is that is certainly an option. It was something that we considered when Guantanamo was being considered at the outset. We believed then, since it was only weeks and months after 9/11, that Americans would not tolerate the United States bringing terrorists into this country. I believe that today, that continues to be the opinion of the majority of American people and also certainly a majority of people in Congress that we just don’t want to do that. We don’t want to bring them into this country.
Hilleary: Well, certainly it seems to be for now an unanswerable problem.
Gonzales: It’s something, again, that we wrestled with in the Bush administration. It’s something that sort of bedevils the Obama administration. Obviously, I understand the frustration. And President Bush was frustrated – I saw it; I sensed it. I’m sure President Obama is frustrated. You know – hopefully there will be an appropriate solution to this at some point, but I continue to believe that right now these prisoners are receiving all the rights that they are entitled to. They are receiving good treatment – certainly the treatment that they are entitled to under international and domestic law. You’re right, it’s a serious problem. Hopefully, the administration will continue to work on it, hopefully work with Congress, to try to find a solution that’s best for the national security of our country, quite frankly.
Listen to Cecily Hilleary’s interview with Alberto R. Gonzales:
For an alternative view, check our interview the former Guantanamo chief prosecutor, Col. Morris D. Davis, Ret.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.