The Stain of Guantanamo

Sometime this week, the Bush administration is expected, for the first time, to make public its case for holding detainees at the military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Think about that: At one point, as many as 700 individuals were held at Guantanamo. And only now, six years after most of them were confined, will the administration have to state its full reasons for holding them.

The case expected to be presented in U.S. District Court in Washington this week involves the so-called “Algerian Six.” They were arrested by Bosnian police in 2001 on suspicion of taking part in an al-Qaida plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. In January 2002, after Bosnian authorities had ordered them released, they were seized by U.S. forces and sent to the new facility at Guantanamo.

Two years later, they were exonerated by Bosnian authorities. But neither Bosnia or Algeria wanted them back, so they remained imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, without charges. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the constitutional right of habeas corpus applied to them, in effect saying that the prisoners had the right to know why they were being held and the right to challenge that reason.

This week the administration will have to put up or shut up.

Guantanamo is a stain on America’s soul.

As of last month, some 250 inmates remained at the camp, according to the independent military website That’s down from a high of about 700 in early 2003. Most of the rest were released and sent to their home countries.

None has been found guilty of committing any acts of terrorism. One man, Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, was convicted of providing material support to terrorists. Another, an Australian, pled guilty of having trained with the Taliban and is serving nine months back home in prison.

Only 80 of the camp’s detainees, are expected ever to face trial by military commissions. Even then, the cases may be tainted by torture, confessions extracted under duress and other violations of legal and constitutional niceties. In the Hamdan case, members of the military commission showed a heartening respect for justice.

Around the world, the word “Guantanamo” has become shorthand for the worst excesses of cowboy diplomacy. It’s long past time for it to be closed.

But last week, President George W. Bush, the cowboy in chief, let it be known that he won’t close the camp. Administration officials told The New York Times that closing the camp involves too many legal and political risks, so the president will drop the issue in the lap of his successor.

The decision is seen as a victory for Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, two of the architects of the dubious legal framework upon which the administration’s anti-terrorism policies were constructed, however flimsily. Closing the camp and moving detainees to prisons on U.S. soil would afford them more claims to constitutional protection. The Cheney camp sees this as a bad thing.

It could mean dropping legal proceedings against some of its detainees and releasing others. Such a move would repudiate Mr. Cheney’s claims that the president has almost unlimited executive power in time of war.

And then there’s a thorny political question of where do you put them: Kansas’ two Republican senators, Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback, already have objected to moving them to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, north of Kansas City. Other possibilities include the federal “Supermax” prison at Florence, Colo., and the U.S. Navy brig at Charleston, S.C.

All of these objections are real but unpersuasive. The U.S. justice and penal systems are fully capable of dealing with dangerous people. Faith in those systems would help. Faith in the Constitution would help even more.