Close Guantanamo?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

THE MILITARY detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has become the focus of global protests against U.S. human rights violations during the war on terrorism. Images of the hooded, jumpsuited prisoners who were brought there in 2002 still pervade the world's media; so do lurid accounts by former inmates alleging abusive treatment, and reports of recent suicides and hunger strikes. Calls to close the facility and release or try its 460 foreign detainees are steadily mounting -- they come now from close allies such as Britain and Germany, from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, and from every major human rights group. Reluctantly, we have to agree: Guantanamo will have to be shuttered. But before coming to that, it's worth pointing out that the international campaign against the camp is more than a little perverse.

The illogic begins with the fact that Guantanamo now is, by far, the most comfortable and legally accountable detention facility maintained by the United States for foreign prisoners. Conditions there were crude in 2002, but since then one state-of-the art detention facility, modeled on a prison in Indiana, has been built, and a second is under construction. Guantanamo's detainees have recreation facilities and good medical care; their continued detention is reviewed once a year by military boards, and prisoners are assigned advocates to help argue their cases. Pending a decision by the Supreme Court, they are also able to appeal their detentions to U.S. federal courts, and many have U.S. civilian lawyers.

In contrast, some 500 detainees held by the United States at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan live in far harsher conditions and have fewer rights. They do not have their own advocates, and none has been able to appeal to U.S. courts. No American lawyers are available to broadcast any complaints they have about poor treatment; in fact, alarmingly little is known about what goes on inside the prison's walls. And Bagram's inmates are better off than the prisoners -- believed to number in the dozens -- held in secret CIA facilities. They have effectively disappeared, like the victims of a Third World dictatorship; they have never been registered with the International Red Cross, provided with a legal review of their cases or allowed to communicate with the outside world. From leaks to the media, we know that some have been tortured with techniques such as "waterboarding," or simulated drowning.

So the United States' treatment of its foreign detainees would improve enormously if all the prisoners it holds were transferred to Guantanamo. But -- and here is another fact ignored in the global anti-American din -- the Bush administration is already engaged in a concerted effort to close the prison or at least reduce its population to a minimum. No new prisoners have been brought there since September 2004, and scores have been transferred to their native countries. A quarter of the remaining population will be returned to Afghanistan once a new prison there is constructed and guards are trained, within the next year; a substantial number may be charged with crimes once the Supreme Court rules on the military's proposed system of justice. The remaining prisoners -- mostly from Yemen and Saudi Arabia -- haven't gone home mainly because U.S. officials worry they will be abused or released without adequate monitoring.

Some of those who demand that Guantanamo be closed insist that all its detainees either be tried or quickly freed. This is wrongheaded and, for some Europeans, hypocritical. In fighting their own wars against terrorists, Britain and other countries have relied on preventive detention to hold dangerous militants who cannot immediately be charged. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has publicly acknowledged that existing legal categories for detention don't necessarily address the problem of stateless extremists who may be planning major attacks but haven't yet committed a specific crime. That doesn't mean that the current system of detention in Guantanamo is acceptable. But, as we argued in a previous editorial, the United States needs a way to hold some suspects without charge for a limited period under procedures regulated by law and U.S. courts.

Once that regime is established, it will be possible to hold detainees from the war on terrorism in many U.S. prisons. In our view, Guantanamo should not be one of them, because it has become a symbol of abuses with which the United States needs to make a clean break. But the most urgent concerns of those pressing the Bush administration ought to be the closure of the CIA's secret facilities and the conversion of Bagram into an Afghan-only facility operated by the Afghan government. Foreign prisoners held by the United States, wherever they may be, should receive Red Cross visits; their detention should be governed by law, with the right of review and appeal to independent judges. Their interrogation should be conducted according to a single set of rules consistent with the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. And they should be tried according to a system of justice that closely resembles the current court martial system.

It is the pursuit of these reforms, rather than the simple closure of Guantanamo, that ought to be the focus of those who seek to address U.S. violations of human rights.

This is the fifth and, for now, final editorial in a series about the Bush administration's detention and treatment of foreign prisoners. We will revisit the topic from time to time during coming months. The full series is available at

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