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Playing It Safe...And Missing the Point

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 27, 2007

Not to knock my adopted hometown paper, but the Washington Post editorial board gets under my skin sometimes. I guess in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the Times, they consistently hew to a quasi-centrist middle-of-the-road position on national security issues.Their editorials always intone these code words for both sides, but rarely take a concrete position one way or the other. Instead, it always ends up milquetoast. Say what you will about the NY Times editorial board (or WSJ, for that matter), at least those folks are consistent, and consistently decisive.Case in point, today’s lead piece on closing Guantanamo:

THE BUSH administration appears to be inching toward a conclusion that most of the world reached long ago: The Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects has been a disaster and must be shut down. Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have urged Mr. Bush to move Guantanamo’s detainees to the United States. If he does not act, the prison will surely be closed by Congress or Mr. Bush’s successor. If the president moves now, he can mitigate the stain Guantanamo will leave on his legacy. More important, he can help to create a sustainable basis for holding and interrogating foreign terrorism suspects in the future.Closing Guantanamo will deprive U.S. adversaries, from Osama bin Laden to Hugo Chávez, of a powerful symbol they use to besmirch America and justify their own abuses. But it will not solve the problems created by the Bush administration’s decision to set aside the Geneva Conventions in holding hundreds of prisoners indefinitely without charge. Nor will it address the continuing need to detain and interrogate a small number of foreign terrorism suspects who are captured far from a conventional battlefield and can’t be charged under U.S. criminal law but who may pose a deadly threat to this country. The administration’s attempt to create a legal basis for detentions and trials at Guantanamo, hastily approved by Congress last year, only deepened the mess — as evidenced by recent judicial rulings that stopped the first trials by military commissions before they could begin.

Those two paragraphs are kind of like late-night gas station hot dogs—they taste amazing, but you get a little queasy when you look real close.So, which is it? Should Bush close Guantanamo himself, without waiting for Congress, or should Congress take the initiative and close Guantanamo, especially given the administration’s consistent recalcitrance on closure and habeas? The editorial seems to suggest both—but eventually lays it on Bush, the individual who has done nothing to solve this problem for more than five years running, and who, by all accounts, has his arms being twisted nearly off by pragmatists on one side and ideologues on the other. For an administration that prides itself on being decisive, it hasn’t quite been a rock of ages on the detention issue.Then, there’s the whole cop-out of, and I paraphrase: Mr. President, close this prison, but that’s not going to solve the whole problem (so, what is?). And then, on top of all that playing-of-both-sides, there’s the intimation that maybe a parallel track for a “small number” of alleged terrorists, presumably designated as such by the executive branch, might be a solution we can all abide by. In other words, it’s a classic Post editorial—throwing pinkish meat at both sides, but saying little of real substance.Though the sentiment, and “Close Guantanamo” headline, is certainly appreciated, we cannot afford to equivocate on the goal for Guantanamo.Congress has the sole responsibility to address the problems caused by our post-9/11 detention policies. The Bush administration has proven itself incapable of setting effective and fair detention policies. It is simply too riven with both bureaucratic infighting and ideological internecine warfare among David Addington acolytes and less doctrinaire conservative lawyers and national security experts.Congress is the only body with the legitimacy, the authority, and the political capital to fix this problem—and it must do so soon.For more articulate articulations of that particular argument, see the feed of yesterday’s rally on the Hill.The Post seems to suggest that a presidential fix would do something to burnish President Bush’s legacy on Guantanamo. Unfortunately, the stories are too harrowing, the incompetence too dramatic, and the abuses too grave for any remedial measure by the White House to result in any plaudits once the histories of this time are written. The best this White House can expect on Guantanamo is talking-point-fed apologism.The Post ought to be unequivocal in its position. It should call on Congress to muster the courage to close Guantanamo, transfer the remaining detainees into the civilian justice system, and, once and for all, send those not charged to their home countries (so long as they won’t be tortured) and punish the guilty. Forget about the administration. As the old saying goes, when opinion leaders straddle the fence, they hurt a lot more when they fall.

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