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Sunshine on Guantanamo

January 23, 2002

With customary immoderation, the headline in one British tabloid screamed "Torture!" The front-page picture of kneeling detainees, chained hand and foot, wearing blacked-out goggles and earmuffs--tools of sensory deprivation?--was called confirmation of ill treatment of the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners being taken to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

But wait a minute. Another British report, this one signed by a team of government investigators, found "no sign" of inhumane treatment. "There were no gags, no goggles, no earmuffs and no shackles while [the prisoners] are in their cells."

The assessment of the International Red Cross, which had full access to the Guantanamo detainees last week, apparently fell between. The Red Cross said the prisoners were not shackled, but it did make some recommendations to the U.S. military on their treatment. Unfortunately the Red Cross' recommendations, as is customary, were not made public. The field will be ripe for rumor and speculation until the Pentagon opens up Guantanamo to observation.

A number of prisoners seized in Afghanistan assuredly require heavy security. That would apply to anyone suicidally bent on destruction. But until the mysteries of their confinement are cleared up, lurid accusations of ill treatment cannot be squelched.

Washington has so far refused to designate the men at Guantanamo prisoners of war, preferring instead the term "unlawful combatants." That linguistic nicety could serve to remove the prisoners' entitlement to treatment outlined in the Geneva Conventions.

Fighters for the Taliban, the former government of Afghanistan, probably have a good claim to the right to be treated as prisoners of war. That may not be so for members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, who were not members of a nation's army or even a militia. The Pentagon should determine who is in what category and release that information.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has sharply criticized what he calls "breathless reports" filed by "people who are uninformed, misinformed or poorly informed" about the treatment of the detainees. Yet by locking out impartial observers, including reporters, he bears much of the blame for any shoddy information. Nor does his intemperate remark that the prisoners "are being treated better than they treated anybody else" help his cause. Surely he does not measure U.S. moral values against the Taliban's. The Pentagon has allowed reporters to view the detainees only from a great distance. It should provide a closer look.

The Geneva Conventions, intended to provide for humane treatment of war prisoners, among other things, were adopted in 1864 and updated four times since. True, the conventions have often been sorely breached, and they may be tricky to apply in the unconventional wars of the 21st century. But better to open the Guantanamo prison, and the process, to full observation than to let accusation and rumor grow in the dark.

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