The following excerpts appeared in the 17 July (print) issue of National Review - not online to non-subscribers - Bing West e-mailed a copy to the SWJ / SWC...

America as Jailer

by Bing West

...The original Gitmo population hovered around 800, but it is now down below 500. Thanks to years of questioning and thousands of inquiries with intelligence services around the globe, a record several inches thick has been accumulated on each prisoner. The interrogators are convinced that 85 percent of Gitmo inmates are terrorists who are intent on continuing their jihad even during imprisonment. Killing a guard is their highest goal, followed by suicide—as a political weapon, not an act of despair. Of 44 suicide attempts, only three have succeeded. The rest have been thwarted because guards have intervened, often at the risk of their lives.

In Guantanamo’s relatively small population, the huge expenditure of American energy has garnered intelligence dossiers that are deep in detail but narrow in scope. In Iraq, where the U.S. holds 14,000 prisoners, the problem is the opposite: Too many are set free because there are not enough resources to closely analyze each prisoner. In Guantanamo, the focus is on extracting information about terror networks through tedious, uncoerced interrogations. In Iraq, the focus is on distinguishing between al-Qaeda-type extremists and nationalist resisters. This requires skilled interrogators, and there aren’t enough of them.


Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently took the risk of releasing 10 percent of the estimated 25,000 prisoners in his country. The intent was to wean “mainstream Sunni resisters” away from the al-Qaeda types by releasing the former and keeping the latter in prison. While courageous and well-intentioned, this reconciliation gesture had a stark downside: After being set free, many insurgents have only had their status enhanced in the eyes of their peers. We don’t know the recidivism rate in Iraq, but in the U.S. it is over 60 percent. It is telling that some of our soldiers have begun referring to Abu Ghraib as “Osama U.”

The policy of releasing Sunni insurgents has the tragic consequence of attenuating deterrence. What do insurgents have to lose from being arrested for fighting if they know they will soon be released by authorities? By not wearing uniforms, they can take advantage of rights comparable to those afforded to criminal suspects in a liberal democracy.

The data on Iraq’s revolving door are revealing. In May, for instance, one American battalion in Ramadi detained 178 suspects—35 percent for possession of explosive devices that kill Americans, 45 percent for illegal weapons or inciting to riot, and 20 percent for outstanding arrest warrants. Every arrest required an enormous amount of hard work under a blistering sun. Each detainee was questioned by an experienced team of interrogators, supervised by a military lawyer who had been an assistant district attorney in the U.S. Within 18 hours, 100 of these arrestees were released with mere warnings. Most had been illegally carrying weapons in their cars.

The remaining 78 were charged with serious offenses. Most refused to answer questions. The arresting American soldiers filed two sworn statements for each arrest, together with photos from the crime scene. The detainees were sent to the brigade level, where 50 were released and 30 were sent to Abu Ghraib Prison to await an Iraqi hearing. Once at Abu Ghraib, still more of these detainees were released by a Combined Review & Release Board, consisting of American and Iraqi officials. The battalion was notified of each release via a convoluted Internet system. To protest any release, American troops had to secure the signature of a colonel...

... Net result: Over 85 percent of all those detained are released within six months.

Senior American officials believe the battalions are indiscriminate in making arrests. The battalions believe the senior officials are under political pressure to release hard-core killers who know how to lie. Either way, the system is broken: In the U.S., one male in 75 is in jail. In Iraq, it is one in 500. So either Iraqis are seven times more law-abiding than Americans, or the judicial system in Iraq is a mess.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, while a major achievement, does not affect the motivations of the foot soldiers in the Iraqi insurgency. We have not created jobs for a million angry Sunni youths. Nor have we created an effective deterrent against their working for the insurgency. In Ramadi, for instance, an unemployed youth is paid $40 to emplace a roadside bomb. It is unlikely that he will be caught in the act, and, if he is caught, he knows the odds greatly favor his release. Our soldiers mock the arrest of insurgents as a “catch and release” fishing tournament.

At best, our current operating procedure shows a failure to communicate between our senior and junior military leaders. Either the lawyers and interrogation teams at the battalion level are incompetent, or the senior reviewers have become timorous because of adverse publicity, and are now determined to close all American-run prisons.

At worst, our porous anti-insurgency effort is undercutting the larger reconciliation strategy. The lack of a justice system inspires vigilantes and fuels sectarian violence, which is compounded by Shiites with militia ties who are hired as prison guards. Reconciliation is a mockery if there is no punishment for rebellion or murder. Prime Minister Maliki has justified the release of 2,500 prisoners as “a chance for those who want to rethink their strategy.” But if these freed prisoners persist with their violent attacks, more Americans and Iraqis will die...


So what should be done? First, stand firm on life imprisonment for terrorists. In Guantanamo, the physical evidence justifying detention is weak, but knowledge of the prisoners has led the reviewers to conclude that they remain a danger to society. In Iraq, the physical evidence is much stronger, but knowledge of terrorists’ states of mind is usually nonexistent, owing to a lack of interrogators...

Second, advertise and showcase Guantanamo as the last stop for terrorists. The Pentagon’s program of inviting reporters to see for themselves is the correct course. The United States has nothing to hide at Gitmo. The prisoners are well treated and the guards are a credit to their country. The more reporters who visit, the better.

Third, get tough on the killers. Most Americans and civilians in Iraq are killed by improvised explosive devices, yet the administration has refused to say whether it is a war crime for a man in civilian clothes to plant such a device. Stop this shilly-shally...

Fourth, repair the disconnect between the U.S. battalions in Iraq making the arrests and the senior officials who keep releasing detainees. The frequency of releases is brewing cynicism, and we must come up with a single system that enables arresting soldiers to be a part of the review-and-release program...