Is Guantanamo Bay worth keeping open to detain people suspected of terrorism?
Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor for Human Rights Watch, a non-profit organization, says no. Pitter addressed about 60 people in Lycoming College's Heim Science Center Thursday evening as the 14th annual Larry Strauser Lecturer in Criminal Justice.
Pitter monitors the goings-on at Guantanamo Bay, including the treatment of prisoners and the conduct of the military commission that tries them.
"In general the United States has been a leader in human rights," she said. "Since September 11th, a lot of that changed."
Since President Obama took office, things haven't changed much at Guantanamo. There are 166 people kept prisoner there now. Of those, 86 have been cleared for release, yet must meet recently imposed restraints that include "certifying" they will never participate in terrorism again.
"One of the first things (Obama) did was sign the executive order to close the facility, in recognition of the fact that keeping Guantanamo Bay open was detrimental to U.S. security," Pitter said. "Bush recognized that toward the end of his term as well.
"We think the political calculus is it's 166 supposed terrorists against lots of other issues that Americans are worried about. In the rest of world this generates a lot of anger towards the U.S. and it's damaging to U.S. foreign policy."
Pitter says the U.S. government has claimed 25 percent of released prisoners return to terroristic activities, but "most people who have done analysis believe it's about one in 17. We're arguing for an individual assessment, that people should be released on their own accord."
Part of the reason Human Rights Watch thinks Guantanamo Bay should be closed is that the courts there are not nearly as efficient as trying suspects in federal courts.
"Every six months a new command comes in and they change all the rules. They haven't tried any high-level guys."
Two suspects have been convicted by the military court, both of which were overturned. During that time, 578 suspects have been convicted in federal courts.
"We feel federal courts are better, not only because they're a fairer system, but more efficient," Pitter said. "The government charters a flight for $90,000 each way, for every hearing. It's a logistical nightmare. Very little progress is made because they're arguing over the rules."
One estimated cost of housing a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay is $800,000 per year, compared to about $29,000 for federal prisoners.
Monitoring the proceedings is difficult for aid organizations and the media.
"Everything is so secret down there we don't know what the evidence is against them," Pitter said. "Only the International Red Cross has access to prisoners. We only see them when they come into a courtroom specially built for the purpose. We sit behind a glass wall and watch on video, and the whole proceeding is on a 40-second delay. If someone says something about torture or something that might be classified you hear white noise and the video goes out."
Two months ago listening devices were found disguised as smoke detectors in the rooms where attorneys and prisoners talk.
"The prisoners didn't want to talk there," Pitter said. "The attorneys always said we're fine, there's attorney-client privilege, and then this happens. A lot of these problems are also unfair to the prosecutor - he wants the proceedings to be seen as fair."
Pitter says moving trials of suspected terrorists to federal courts will benefit everyone involved.
"These guys are happy to be in Gitmo. They don't want to be treated like common criminals, but what they're charged with can be tried in federal court. There are victims suffering, and they've been waiting on justice a long time."