Guantanamo: Close it now

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, Jan. 20:

On “Meet the Press” in June 2007, Colin Powell nicely summed up the urgency for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: “If it were up to me, I would close Guantanamo not tomorrow but this afternoon.

“Essentially, we have shaken the belief the world had in America’s justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like the military commission,” Powell said.

It was big news that the man who served as secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s first term had gone public with his dissent. But as of today, Guantanamo still is open. Sometime Wednesday, the new president, Barack Obama, is expected to sign an executive order closing it. Even then, the new administration says, because of the extraordinary legal complications involved in closing the prison, it will remain open, probably for months to come.

We understand that it is complicated. Bush has been saying that since 2006. Sorting out the cases against the 250 prisoners remaining _ the truly dangerous, the might-have-been dangerous and the why-are-these-guys-still-here? _ to say nothing of the various interrogation methods used against them, will take some time. It could have been done by now had the Bush administration not been so intent on defending its tactics and methods.

But actually physically closing the camp at Guantanamo? Moving the prisoners somewhere else while the triage is under way? That could be done immediately. And doing so would send a powerful signal to the world that the ideals of American justice again are ascendant.

It will be recalled that during World War II, 425,000 German and Italian prisoners of war were held in prisoner-of-war camps in the United States. Most of them, of course, were enlisted men and draftees, not “terrorist masterminds.” Nor was there any doubt that they were prisoners of war, covered by the Third Geneva Convention, and not “enemy combatants” housed offshore and subject only to special military commissions created by the Bush administration.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a succession of opinions beginning in 2004, chipped away at the administration’s position. Most of the 750 detainees once held in the camp were released and either repatriated or sent to other nations willing to house them. As Bush leaves office, the 250 left are those who will be toughest to bring to trial or toughest to find other options. The easier cases are gone.

Fortunately, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has cut some valuable trail. She has reintroduced a bill (S. 147) she first proposed in 2007, calling for the closure of Guantanamo within one year. The bill calls for transferring all detainees to facilities in the United States or to an international tribunal. Some of them would be tried (in civilian, military or international courts). Others could be detained as prisoners of war. Others would be sent home or to third-party nations willing to process their cases and treat them in accordance with international law.

With one exception _ one month, not one year _ Obama should endorse Feinstein’s bill. And he should ask Congress to rewrite the heinous Military Commissions Act to bring the United States back into compliance with international law.

Under Feinstein’s bill, no dangerous terrorists would be released. Those found, in an impartial hearing, to have taken up arms or planned armed attacks on the United States and who can’t be tried _ because evidence against them was coerced or obtained through torture _ should be detained as prisoners of war as long as the United States is engaged in armed conflict with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. If we understand radical Islam, this could be forever, but that’s up to them.

Wherever they go, these “worst of the worst” (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once called them) are going to need special handling. Turned loose in a larger prison population, the detainees might look back on Gitmo as the good old days.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.