Gates is right: Shut this prison

Published April 7, 2007

Close it. That's what Defense Secretary Robert Gates says should be done with the U.S.-run prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Gates takes the long view on America's national security interests, and his suggestion reflects what our allies have been telling Washington for years. Guantanamo is a stain on America's reputation, and international disgust with its existence is interfering with our fight against terrorism.

Guantanamo has helped incite resentment and rage in the Islamic world. Its existence has made the United States less safe. For that reason, and because it defies every principle of due process and the rule of law that used to define us as a nation, Guantanamo needs to be closed.

From the start, Guantanamo has been sold by the Bush administration as a necessity to keep terror suspects deemed "the worst of the worst" in a place where they can no longer do harm. But until recently, the worst of the worst were held in secret prisons around the world. Instead, Guantanamo was established to be a place where prisoners could be held in a legal black hole. The Bush administration assumed that since Guantanamo was overseas, American courts wouldn't scrutinize the administration's activities there.

This lack of accountability has led to hundreds of people being imprisoned for years only to be released later without charge. According to the Defense Department's own records, one study found only 8 percent of those scooped up were characterized as al-Qaida fighters. It also found that 86 percent of the detainees in Guantanamo had been arrested by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and handed over to U.S. forces. That was when large bounties were paid for every suspected enemy captured.

When the norms of due process are ignored, innocent people are inevitably wronged.

There are still nearly 400 detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo, yet Gates suggests fewer than 100 are dangerous. He says this small group of captives should be transferred to the United States and tried here. With refreshing candor, Gates says that trying these detainees in Guantanamo using military commissions would never be accepted as legitimate by the international community.

Gates has it right. Guantanamo should be closed, and any prisoner considered dangerous should be brought here and tried under rules that closely parallel those used in court-martial proceedings. Only that would bring the United States back into line with the Geneva Conventions and international law. And only then would we start to rebuild America's moral authority.