If you're in the sleepy town of Guantanamo with an afternoon to kill, as I once found myself, you can get a taxi driver to take you out to an overlook from which one can glimpse parts of America's oldest overseas naval base, shimmering in the convection-oven midday heat that bakes the life out of Cuba's eastern provinces. The compound in the distance is a historical place, stolen fair and square by the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American War and then turned over to a compliant new Cuban government, which leased it back to us in 1903 on terms that basically let us keep it forever.

There's not much to see, to be honest, but you can tell that Guantanamo Bay would be a perfect place for a Club Med-style resort, complete with cold drinks of the sort that come with little plastic umbrellas.

That heat-induced hallucination is not likely to be realized anytime soon. But it's suddenly possible that the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay will have to abandon its current function, as a prison for detainees in the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism). And if it does, the Bush administration has no one to blame but itself.

I'm making a few assumptions here: First, that the administration is right in saying that many of the detainees are committed enemy fighters who, if released, would pick up where they left off. Second, that some number of them either were wrongly detained or have no fight left in them. Third, that whatever useful intelligence these people can provide, we've already extracted most of it. And, fourth, that the shameful prisoner abuse could be remedied without having to shut the place down -- a simple order from the Pentagon would end it.

The problems that apparently can't be fixed so easily are the administration's contempt for transparency, its disregard for due process and its habit of starting things without giving proper thought to how to end them.

That's why U.S. senators are using phrases like "international embarrassment" and "crazy quilt" to describe Guantanamo and its procedures, and why the administration itself is sending such mixed messages. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld sounds like one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, vowing never to give an inch. Other officials, though, are speaking of "options" and keeping them open.

The flap over Guantanamo proves, thankfully, that we're simply not a country with the stomach to run a secret prison system in which people are held indefinitely and subjected to frequent harsh interrogation, with no way to prove their innocence. That's out of the Axis of Evil playbook. The regimes that can pull off that sort of thing with aplomb are precisely the ones we want to infect with American-style freedoms.

Yes, the 520 or so prisoners still at Guantanamo have been given hearings before military panels. But that's where the lack of transparency comes in, because a secret military hearing is the same as no hearing at all.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the Guantanamo prisoners have at least some right to appeal their detention in the federal courts. But rather than abide by the court's rulings, the administration has stalled and obfuscated. That's the contempt for due process.

All of this started when the White House and the Pentagon, so quick to declare this conflict a war, insisted in the same breath that captured fighters from the other side did not qualify to be treated as prisoners of war, which would have given them full rights under the Geneva Conventions. That may have been wise, but the legitimate alternative was to declare them criminals. The administration didn't want to grant the detainees the rights of criminal defendants either, so it settled on the "enemy combatants" dodge, which has clearly passed its sell-by date.

As for the administration's weakness at planning for the endgame: Exactly how long does it intend to hold these people? Five years? Ten? Twenty?

"Until the end of hostilities" is not an acceptable answer. It would make sense in a conventional war, but not in this bizarre, asymmetrical conflict that's more a battle of ideas and religion and visions of paradise than a war between two clear, definable sides. It could last decades, like the Cold War. And when will we even know it's over? How will we ever be certain that terrorism -- which is a tactic, not a sovereign nation -- has been finally vanquished?

It goes against America's grain to hold people indefinitely in prison without proving, in a court of law, that they have committed some crime. The whole thing just smells.

Like a fish left out in the Guantanamo sun.