Wrenching Choices on Guantanamo

The Washington Post, November 21, 2008

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came into office wanting to close the American detention operation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Nearly two years later, Guantanamo is still there. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she wants to close it. Guantanamo will outlast her. Yet, to watch the post-election Democratic triumphalism, you’d think that Guantanamo is as good as shuttered. President-elect Barack Obama has reiterated his campaign promise to close it, and some self-described advisers talk as though he’ll wave a magic wand on Jan. 20 and a problem that has bedeviled this country for seven years will evaporate.

Closing Guantanamo won’t be easy, at least not if Obama means to change the substance of American detention policy rather than merely altering its geography. Obama could, to be sure, fulfill his promise simply by moving detainees to a different facility while continuing to hold them as “enemy combatants.” The challenge of closing Guantanamo would then come down to a series of logistical and administrative questions.

Solving the Guantanamo problem means making important decisions about detention policy in combating terrorism more generally: When, if ever, should the United States engage in preventive detention of terrorism suspects? If and when it does, should it treat them as enemy combatants under the laws of war or under some other body of law, perhaps a new detention statute? What rights should they have? What should the government have to prove about them, to what standard of proof, and in what sort of forum?

Notwithstanding the idea projected by some members of his camp that closing Guantanamo is simply a matter of will, Obama cannot just wish these questions away. Indeed, they defy answers in the absence of a systematic and rigorous review of the detainee population itself, including the classified information about each prisoner. This process, carried out properly, will not take place instantly.

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