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Supreme Court Decisions
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Should We Close Guantanamo?

Chicago Tribune
May 14, 2006

The GuantanamoBay detention camp in Cuba has been long reviled by America's enemies. Lately, however, even our closest allies are fed up with it. The attorney general of Britain announced recently, "The existence of GuantanamoBay remains unacceptable." German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in January it "should not exist in the long run."

Though critics have the wrong solution, they're addressing a genuine problem. The U.S. handling of these detainees has been seriously flawed and needs improvement. But closing Guantanamo is no good if it merely means detainees will be shipped to other, equally unsatisfactory U.S. installations--or turned over to governments that may subject them to worse treatment.

The benefit of shutting it down would be mostly symbolic. A greater symbolic and practical victory would be to transform the camp--make it one that affirms the United States' determination to win the war on terrorism while respecting human rights.

At the outset of the war on terrorism, this detention facility answered a vital question: where to house people, captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, who were believed to be members of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other violent groups. Like a conventional prisoner-of-war camp, its primary purpose was to remove enemy soldiers from the fight until it is over.

But, in the scramble to cope with the terrifying uncertainties of the post-Sept. 11 world, the Bush administration made some serious mistakes. The administration declined to extend the protections of the Geneva Convention, arguing that because the adversaries didn't observe its rules, they didn't qualify. It cloaked the entire operation in secrecy and approved interrogation methods that the International Committee of the Red Cross said were "tantamount to torture." It insisted that the detentions were beyond the review of civilian courts, a claim rejected by the Supreme Court. All these factors helped to turn the world against Guantanamo.

About 270 inmates have been released or turned over to other governments, and nearly 500 remain in custody. If these captives are to be held indefinitely, they should get what the Supreme Court said they are entitled to: "a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decision-maker." That should include letting them have lawyers during the proceeding, letting them see and rebut the evidence against them and making the process as open as possible under the circumstances. With that sort of tribunal, the U.S. would be on much firmer ground in detaining those found to warrant continued incarceration.

Another change that can be made at no risk to national security is to improve the conditions in which the inmates are held--which typically feature small wire cells, little time for exercise and scant reading material. Given that the Pentagon says the purpose of detention is prevention, not punishment, there is no reason the detainees can't be treated less harshly.

Changes such as these would be less dramatic than simply emptying out the camp, but they would be a better solution to the problems that Guantanamo has come to represent.

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