No intelligence without detention


The sun rises over the U.S. detention center Camp Delta at US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on October 18, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • It is unlikely that President Obama will make good on his promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay during his second term.

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  • The real tragedy is the fact that the US will not have a dependable terrorist detention or interrogation policy for another 4 years.

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  • We cannot defeat al Qaeda and stop new attacks with drones alone. @MarcThiessen

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  • When we kill high-value terrorists, we vaporize all intelligence they possess. We need this intelligence to save lives.

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Editors Note: This piece originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate as a response to the question: Time to end military tribunals?

Time to End Military Tribunals?

Should President Obama stop using military commissions to prosecute combatants captured in the war on terror, and transfer the Guantánamo cases to the federal courts?

It is unlikely that President Obama will make good on his promise to shut down Guantánamo Bay in his second term. There is overwhelming bipartisan opposition in Congress to such a move; the Senate voted 90-6 to block funds for Guantánamo’s closing. Most polls also show that the majority of Americans don’t want terrorist detainees to be transferred to the United States. I think Guantánamo will still be open in January 2017, when Obama’s successor is inaugurated.

The real tragedy in all of this is the fact that this country will not have a dependable terrorist detention or interrogation policy for another four years. Under Obama, drone strikes have escalated dramatically, while live captures have plummeted. The Obama administration has prioritized killing senior terrorist leaders over taking them alive for questioning -- because, according to senior military officials, we “don’t have a detention policy or a set of facilities” to hold live captures. Guantánamo Bay remains open but it is not accepting new prisoners.

Dead terrorists cannot tell you their plans for new attacks. When we kill high-value terrorists, we vaporize all the intelligence they possess — information we cannot get anywhere else about Al Qaeda’s operations, recruits, safe houses, communications and plans for new attacks. We need this intelligence to save lives.

As the author Mark Bowden makes clear in his new book, "The Finish," intelligence from captured terrorists played an important role in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The Obama administration uses the treasure trove of intelligence it inherited from the Bush administration every day. But with each passing year, that intelligence becomes increasingly dated. New leaders rise through the ranks. New plots are conceived. And new networks form in places like Yemen, Somalia, Mali and eastern Libya, about which we know little.

We are no longer replenishing the information we have about Al Qaeda’s inner workings because we are no longer capturing and detaining the terrorist leaders who could provide us with new intelligence. We cannot defeat Al Qaeda and stop new attacks with drones alone. We need to question live terrorists who can tell us their plots and plans. And that means we need somewhere to take them.

Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a columnist and the author of "Courting Disaster." He was chief speech writer for President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

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About the Author


Marc A.
  • A member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, Marc A. Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Thiessen spent more than six years as spokesman and senior policy adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He is a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, and his articles can be found in many major publications. His book on the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program, Courting Disaster (Regnery Press, 2010), is a New York Times bestseller. At AEI, Thiessen writes about U.S. foreign and defense policy issues for The American and the Enterprise Blog. He appears every Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and makes frequent appearances on other TV and talk radio programs.

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