This past weekend the New York Times published reporter Scott Shane’s investigation into the domestic system of detention for those convicted of terrorism. It turns out Guantanamo, and military tribunals, are far from the full story when it comes to locking up terrorists:
In recent weeks, Congress has reignited an old debate, with some arguing that only military justice is appropriate for terrorist suspects. But military tribunals have proved excruciatingly slow and imprisonment at Guantánamo hugely costly — $800,000 per inmate a year, compared with $25,000 in federal prison.
The criminal justice system, meanwhile, has absorbed the surge of terrorism cases since 2001 without calamity, and without the international criticism that Guantánamo has attracted for holding prisoners without trial.
The numbers involved are eye-opening, even considering what I consider the generally inflated reporting on every far-fetched plot broken up in the planning stages (not to say there haven’t been serious threats, but to point out that groups that ask for boots from their FBI informant are likely not an imminent threat to blow up the Sears Tower):
Big numbers. Today, 171 prisoners remain at Guantánamo. As of Oct. 1, the federal Bureau of Prisons reported that it was holding 362 people convicted in terrorism-related cases, 269 with what the bureau calls a connection to international terrorism — up from just 50 in 2000. An additional 93 inmates have a connection to domestic terrorism.
Lengthy sentences. Terrorists who plotted to massacre Americans are likely to die in prison. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, is serving a sentence of life without parole at the Supermax, as are Zacarias Moussaoui, a Qaeda operative arrested in 2001, and Mr. Reid, the shoe bomber, among others. But many inmates whose conduct fell far short of outright terrorism are serving sentences of a decade or more, the result of a calculated prevention strategy to sideline radicals well before they could initiate deadly plots.
The conduct of those responsible for operating these detention centers is also called into question (for a summary of the issues involved, see this HSPI/CIAG joint report “Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization”:
Special units. Since 2006, the Bureau of Prisons has moved many of those convicted in terrorism cases to two special units that severely restrict visits and phone calls. But in creating what are Muslim-dominated units, prison officials have inadvertently fostered a sense of solidarity and defiance, and set off a long-running legal dispute over limits on group prayer. Officials have warned in court filings about the danger of radicalization, but the Bureau of Prisons has nothing comparable to the deradicalization programs instituted in many countries.
Both the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress often cite the threat of homegrown terrorism. But the Bureau of Prisons has proven remarkably resistant to outside scrutiny of the inmates it houses, who might offer a unique window on the problem.
In 2009, a group of scholars proposed interviewing people imprisoned in terrorism cases about how they took that path. The Department of Homeland Security approved the proposal and offered financing. But the Bureau of Prisons refused to grant access, saying the project would require too much staff time.
“There’s a huge national debate about how dangerous these people are,” said Gary LaFree, director of a national terrorism study center at the University of Maryland, who was lead author of the proposal. “I just think, as a citizen, somebody ought to be studying this.”
The article addresses the basic issue of the tradeoff between security and justice, and in my mind clearly comes out on the side of justice. The reporter gives his story several faces in his exploration of a few cases. The convicted, as well as their family and friends, can be read as arguing that sentences were too heavy for the infractions involved. However there does not seem to be any true miscarriages of justice. No innocent individual convicted on terrorism-related charges that in some way were not connected with the activities of which they were accused. I do not believe that true justice has been carried out in every domestic terrorism case, history of the wrongly convicted in other criminal areas is too overwhelming. Considering law enforcement’s focus on terrorism, perhaps the term near-hysteria could be applied for that period following shortly after 9/11 where a sleeper cell was suspected in every town, that the scales of justice do not appear dangerously unbalanced is of some relief.
The other important that emerges from this story is that our existing justice system appears up to the task of dealing with the issue of terrorism. Compared against the costs and success of military tribunals and incarceration at Guantanamo, it should be a no-brainer to depend on domestic prisons and existing civilian judicial instruments. Unfortunately, that is not happening.