This editorial, to appear in the International Herald Tribune June 20, was (in slightly longer form) in the New York Times June 18:
Guantánamo and who we are
The New York Times
MONDAY, JUNE 20, 2005
It was a relief to watch last week’s hearing by Senator Arlen Specter’s Judiciary Committee on the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to hear Specter, a Republican, declare that it was time for Congress to do its job and finally bring the American chain of prison camps under the law.
At the hearing, four military and civilian officials overseeing the processing of prisoners could not, or would not, provide the most basic information – such as how many detainees there are and what countries they came from. Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift, a military lawyer, later courageously testified that he was assigned to represent one of the prisoners for the sole purpose of extracting a guilty plea. He provided a written order that contradicted the denials of the man who assigned him, Brigadier General Thomas Hemingway, who oversees the military tribunals George W. Bush created after 9/11 to screen selected prisoners away from public and judicial scrutiny.
William Barr, who was attorney general for President George H.W. Bush, arrogantly dismissed the entire debate as a waste of time.
“Rarely have I seen a controversy that has less substance behind it,” said Barr, who was sent by the administration to dilute a panel of critics of the prison policy.
But the hearing confirmed the urgency of subjecting the detention system to the rule of law – starting with the president’s legally dubious invention of “unlawful enemy combatant.” J. Michael Wiggins, a deputy associate attorney general, said the administration believed it could hold anyone given that label “in perpetuity” without even filing charges. Excuse us, Mr. Barr, but that sounds like something of great substance.
The administration should, as a first step, shut down the Guantánamo prison. Beyond that, Specter was exactly right when he said Congress must establish legal definitions of detainees from anti-terrorist operations, enact rules for their internment and determine their rights under the Geneva Conventions and American law, including what sorts of evidence can be used against them. Those steps would help fix a system in which prisoners have been declared enemy combatants on the basis of confessions extracted under torture by countries working in behalf of American intelligence.
The Bush administration says 9/11 changed the relevant rules. Even if we accept that flawed premise, it is up to Congress to make new rules in a way that upholds American standards. The current setup – in which politically appointed ideologues make the rules behind closed doors – has done immense harm to the nation’s image and increased the risk to every American in uniform.
A trial “says as much about the society that holds the trial as it does about the individual before it,” Swift reminded the Senate. “Our trials in the United States reflect who we are.”
The detention camps should meet no less of a standard.
See our last post on Guantanamo Bay.