Beyond Guantanamo

Monday, June 30, 2008

THE SUPREME Court's recent decision to allow those held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their detentions in federal court triggered the beginning of what could have been a welcome debate about terrorism policy between the presumptive presidential nominees. Too bad that the exchange quickly descended into name-calling and evasion, with surrogates for Republican John McCain calling Democrat Barack Obama "naive" for applauding the decision and Mr. Obama asserting that Republicans lacked the moral authority to criticize him because they had engineered the "distraction of the war in Iraq" instead of tracking down the culprits in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

There are few greater challenges for the next president than cleaning up the legal and political mess created by President Bush's misguided tactics in the war on terrorism. Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have spoken clearly about some matters but have yet to articulate a coherent stance on others.

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have rightly decried the use of torture and coercive interrogation techniques and vowed to prevent their use. Mr. Obama said that he favored a measure requiring all U.S. interrogators to abide by the Army Field Manual, which prohibits torture. Mr. McCain, a former Vietnam POW, voted against the provision, saying that the CIA must refrain from extreme tactics but should have more flexibility in questioning suspects than is allowed under the manual. We agree with Mr. Obama's position, yet we believe that a President McCain would not allow the abuses perpetrated during the Bush years.

Mr. McCain supported creation of the two-step process used at Guantanamo: tribunals to determine whether detainees were enemy combatants and commissions to prosecute those deemed as such. Both processes lack some of the fundamental tools available in federal courts that allow defendants to challenge allegations.

Mr. Obama voted against the Guantanamo commissions and has said that the civilian and military courts are well-equipped to handle terrorism cases. He has spoken approvingly of the federal prosecution of the defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yet the government relied on traditional law enforcement methods to lock them up only after they succeeded in carrying out violence.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama have each said that they would shutter the Guantanamo detention center. But what then? Closing Guantanamo is the correct move, but it leaves open the question of what to do with current detainees and future terrorism suspects. The president must, in rare cases, be able to act on credible intelligence to detain someone believed to be a possible threat -- even if there is not enough evidence at that moment to lodge court charges. Neither candidate has provided enough specifics about how he would handle such circumstances.

Mr. McCain has said that he would move detainees to the United States after a closure of Guantanamo, but he is unclear about how those cases would be handled on U.S. soil, and he has not elaborated on how he would handle suspects captured overseas. Advisers to Mr. Obama have said that he would consider operating CIA prisons overseas; unlike the Bush administration, he would correctly allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to have access to those detainees. But what criteria would Mr. Obama use to determine who could be held and for how long? What legal avenue would be available for challenging such detentions?

Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama need to provide more specifics about where they stand. Whoever walks into the White House next January must have a clear vision on how he'll handle such matters.

The Ideas Primary, a series of editorials on the issues of the presidential race, can be found at

© 2008 The Washington Post Company