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Opinion We need to start paying attention to the fate of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay

Activists wearing prison jumpsuits and black hoods participate in a demonstration against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp near the White House on Jan. 11.
Activists wearing prison jumpsuits and black hoods participate in a demonstration against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp near the White House on Jan. 11. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

THE DETAILS of the U.S. government’s descent into torture as an anti-terrorism tactic have been publicly rehearsed many times in the 18-plus years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Nevertheless, the mistreatment of alleged al-Qaeda detainees at CIA “black site” prisons around the world retain their power to shock. And so it was shocking to hear a retired Air Force psychologist describe it in his first public sworn statement, even though he has written a book and given many interviews.

One alleged al-Qaeda terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, was “waterboarded” so severely that he began having involuntary body spasms and began to cry, James Mitchell told a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Indeed, Mr. Mitchell, who designed the CIA “enhanced interrogation program” and personally waterboard alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, choked up at the horrific spectacle, too. And yet he defiantly told the commission that he felt a “moral obligation to protect American lives [that] outweighed the temporary discomfort of terrorists who had voluntarily taken up war against us.”

The context for Mr. Mitchell’s testimony was a pretrial hearing that has been dragging on for years as the military commission system that the George W. Bush administration established, along with “enhanced interrogation,” staggers dysfunctionally on. Defense lawyers for Mr. Mohammed and others called Mr. Mitchell to the stand to buttress their argument that statements the defendants gave FBI interrogators should not be admitted at trial because they had been tainted by torture. It’s a plausible argument — so natural, in fact, that no administration actually interested in winning convictions in a fair court would have tortured detainees in the first place. The Bush administration has said its higher priority was gathering actionable intelligence, not courtroom evidence; there is much debate about how successful torture was in that regard, too, however.

What seems beyond debate, now, is that the Guantanamo Bay episode has gone on for too long and at too high a cost to the United States, both in damage to our international reputation and to our actual goals in the war against terrorism. There are 40 detainees left at the prison, of an original total of 780. Of these, only two have been convicted by military commissions; seven others have been charged and face trial; three have been recommended for trial; and the rest have not been charged but have been deemed impossible to transfer out for security or other reasons. And so dozens of men still live in limbo; unresolved, too, is the final accountability of Mr. Mohammed, who deserves judgment and punishment but whose case instead languishes in military commission purgatory.

Little or no attention is being paid to this situation at the highest levels in either Congress or the executive branch, which is headed by a man who ran on a promise to bring more prisoners to Guantanamo Bay and do "worse than waterboarding" if elected. As last week's chilling testimony reminds us, though, there is much unfinished business still left from 9/11. And attention must be paid.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Let U.S. federal courts decide the fate of Guantanamo prisoners

Peter Jan Honigsberg: After 17 years, Guantanamo still erodes U.S. commitment to the rule of law

Editorial Board: No, Guantanamo is not a ‘very fine place’ to hold terrorism suspects

Paul Waldman: From torture to Trump, Republicans no longer even pretend they have principles

Daniel J. Jones: The CIA tortured prisoners. Americans should know the whole truth.

Kathleen Parker: Thanks to Trump, we are living in a world of sleaze