Indications that President-elect Barack Obama will shutter the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility has sent Sen. Lindsey Graham and Congressman Henry Brown, both South Carolina Republicans, to challenge suggestions that some of the 250 suspected terrorists housed there could be shipped to Charleston’s Navy Brig.
Guantanamo has held more than 750 prisoners since opening in 2002. Persistent criticism of the conditions, treatment, and long-term detention of the suspects led both Obama and Republican challenger Sen. John McCain to support closing the facility. The Pentagon is reportedly weighing options in expectation of a change in directions. Some suspects have been waiting years for a trial. Others have been cleared for release, but the Bush administration has had trouble getting their home countries to take them back.
Charleston’s brig has held terror suspects before, placing it on the radar with a handful of other possible locations. Questions about where these suspects will go remain unanswered, likely because of the political wrangling it will take. Politicians representing the potential mainland holding sites have downplayed their local facilities’ capabilities while pointing in the direction of other facilities they see as better equipped. Calling the detention of terror suspects in the Lowcountry “a horrible mistake,” Brown called the Charleston brig a medium-security facility.
“Bringing these extremely dangerous war criminals, deemed too high of a threat to be sent home, would add an unnecessary terrorist threat to our community,” he says.
History, in some ways, is working against Brown’s argument. Over the past several years, the Charleston brig has housed three high-profile terror suspects, including Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi. Their time in Charleston is believed to have included controversial interrogation and detention techniques similar to those used at Guantanamo.
But Charleston’s role in detaining these terrorists hasn’t gone without at least one terror scare. In August 2007, two Egyptian-born Florida college students were pulled over miles from the Navy base with what they claimed were “fireworks” in the trunk. The two men were charged with transporting explosive devices across state lines, though law enforcement dismissed their proximity to the base as a coincidence. It was later found that one of the men had created an internet video explaining to Muslim extremists how to make a bomb out of a remote control toy.
At the time, Naval Station spokesman Scott Bassett told the City Paper that the well-fortified brig would be a sorry target for potential terrorist strikes.
“You don’t want to beat up the 250-pound eighth grader, you want to beat up the 50-pound eighth grader,” he said.
Brown’s assertion that Charleston is defenseless against terrorist attack down plays the nationally-recognized security already in place thanks, in part, to Project Seahawk, a high-tech collaboration between multiple law enforcement and intellegence agencies that protects and monitors the Charleston harbor. It has become a model for similar programs in development elsewhere, and would likely receive increased attention and federal aid if Guantanamo detainees are transferred to the area.
Brown also doesn’t consider the major targets already located and operating in the Lowcountry, including the Charleston Air Force Base which provides major transport support to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and Force Protection, the Ladson-based company that manufactures and maintains up-armored vehicles which have reduced military fatalities in those war zones.
But Brown argues there are bigger, better, and more isolated containment facilities to take Guantanamo terrors suspects.
“The fact is that there are far better options than bringing them to Charleston,” Brown says. “Facilities such as the maximum security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., or the existing federal ‘supermax’ prison in Florence, Colo., are all locations better equipped to securely and separately hold hundreds of individuals with ties to terrorists from civilians.”
Not surprisingly, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) says Leavenworth isn’t fit to hold the suspects either. The Pentagon is also considering Camp Pendleton in California, according to a recent McClatchy News Service report.
If Obama’s election is indicative of anything, it’s the reduced influence of red-meat rhetoric. Brown and Graham’s fears may be warranted, but only to a point. Yet Obama’s conviction to close Guantanamo suggests the best move may not be alarmist indignation, but a reasoned debate over the future of the detainees and what it would actually mean for Charleston residents.