NAVY SECRETARY Gordon R. England announced last week that the newly established review tribunals at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba had concluded that an inmate there is not, after all, an enemy combatant. The detainee was to be freed as soon as arrangements could be made. That these tribunals so quickly resulted in a detainee being cleared suggests two conclusions: first, that they are not functioning as a mere rubber stamp, and second, that it was inexcusable not to set them up 21/2 years ago.

The tribunals are part of the bewildering array of formal review mechanisms that have suddenly arisen at the base, which previously had none. They are charged with assessing whether inmates were properly designated as enemy fighters in the first place or whether they were noncombatants swept up as a consequence of a misunderstanding. The military has completed 30 of these hearings, Mr. England said, and found 29 of the inmates to be properly classified.

These proceedings are important because they offer some protection against the snap judgments that must be made during wartime. Indeed, in a conflict as complicated as the war on terrorism -- in which fighters wear no uniforms and hide behind civilians -- it was utterly predictable that mistakes would be made. But the Bush administration chose to wait for the Supreme Court to force its hand before agreeing to provide these tribunals. No sooner did it finally do so than it found precisely what one would have expected: that not everyone being held is rightly classified.

Mr. England said the reclassification was not as "clear-cut" as correcting an earlier mistake, noting that new information had caused the tribunal to reconsider the earlier judgment. The administration did both itself and any innocent detainees an enormous disservice by bullheadedly stalling on the tribunals for so long.