Timothy Naftali: Recommends tracking system for Gitmo prisoners

Historians in the News

Timothy Naftali, a historian at the University of Virginia who has written on American counter-terrorism policy, has proposed a measure that he thinks could make releasing detainees [from Guantanamo] less of a gamble.

The fact that we can't charge a low-level Taliban or al Qaeda member with a crime, he argues, doesn't mean we have to keep him locked up. Why not let him go but keep track of him?

Naftali's model is a co-ordinated, decades-long operation carried out by American, British, and French counterespionage forces after World War II to monitor Nazis who they thought might resort to terrorism.

The Allies "got together and established a central registry of all of these people that they had been following, so that they could share this information when these people traveled and communicated."

Today, Naftali believes, the registry could be more comprehensive, with various biometric measurements like iris scans, fingerprints, and voice imprints entered into a central database.

He admits that how exactly this would work -- where information would be stored, and how it would be co-ordinated -- presents a challenge, but he envisions a combination of high-tech gadgetry and old-fashioned spying.

Whatever the form, he believes that it would allow most of the detainees at Guantanamo to be released to their home countries. There might even be intelligence benefits if former detainees who are actually al Qaeda operatives tried to connect with old comrades.

Naftali concedes that such a plan is risky. It is easy in many parts of the world for someone to vanish, and there have been documented cases already of released Guantanamo detainees rejoining the Taliban to fight US forces.

But some detainee advocates also embrace the idea of a tracking system. They see it as a way to mitigate the risk that, once sent back to home countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- not known for their attention to civil liberties -- their clients will simply disappear into prison.

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