President Obama Is Right to Move Cautiously in Closing Guantanamo

Thursday, January 22, 2009

IN PUTTING a halt to legal proceedings at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, while his administration reportedly prepares an executive order to close the detention facility, President Obama has moved one step closer to ending the discredited practices for handling foreign detainees that have blemished the United States' reputation worldwide.

Yet Mr. Obama shows appropriate prudence in taking things slowly -- at least for now. Proceedings in the military commission trials will be on hold until May 20, giving Mr. Obama and his advisers some four months to decide whether to revamp or discard the commissions. The executive order, which reportedly would set a one-year deadline for closing the Guantanamo detention facility, gives the administration time to review the cases of those detainees deemed too dangerous to be released and to decide how and where -- and in some cases, whether -- these detainees should be tried. It gives the administration time to fully explore the possibility of allowing some detainees into this country while negotiating with allies about taking others.

But Mr. Obama must be mindful not to delay too much. Through no fault of his own, he has inherited a system in which many detainees have been held for years without a meaningful review of their cases. They have been denied the opportunity to scrutinize the evidence against them or to gather and present information that could exonerate them. Some have been abused or tortured. Relying on a deeply flawed and unjust legal process such as the one in place at Guantanamo is untenable -- but so would be continuing to hold detainees under no process at all.

Mr. Obama should order trials in federal court when possible. For those for whom traditional prosecutions would not be feasible, he should ensure robust due process, whether in courts-martial or a version of existing military commissions. If there are dangerous detainees who cannot be tried -- a possibility that Mr. Obama has acknowledged -- the president should consider creation of a specialized court, akin to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in which such detainees would be guaranteed periodic review of their detentions by a federal judge empowered to order their release.

It is gratifying to see the new president take seriously his promise to reverse the damage done to the country and to some innocents as a result of the abuses at Guantanamo. But the process of unraveling Guantanamo will be delicate and difficult. Mr. Obama is right to proceed cautiously to achieve the goals of protecting the rights of detainees while protecting the safety of the country.

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