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Restore America's values

Shutting down Guantanamo is just a start. We also have to revive our notions of civil liberty and justice.

June 13, 2007

FORMER SECRETARY of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that he would shut the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, "this afternoon" because of the harm it has done to this country's image. Closing Guantanamo -- something even President Bush thought was a good idea for a while -- is long overdue. But relocating its 385 inmates would be the beginning, not the end, of an overhaul of the flawed system that the Bush administration and Congress created to deal with suspected terrorists.

The problem with Guantanamo is not the "where" but the "what": indefinite confinement during a conflict that, unlike traditional wars, could last for decades. Alleged enemy combatants in such an open-ended "war" -- wherever they are held -- should be given a meaningful opportunity to assert their innocence.

Understandably, no such opportunity was provided in the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As it sought to round up, detain and question conspirators and possible confederates, the administration expected, and received, considerable slack from Congress, the court system and the news media. But as months became years and hundreds of prisoners continued to languish at Guantanamo (even as others were released and repatriated), first the Supreme Court and then Congress wrestled with the problem of how to give them their day in court. The ultimate result was a poorly conceived law known as the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

That act perpetuated a system of tribunals that undermines civil liberties without significantly enhancing national security. Most objectionably, it forbids detainees from challenging their confinement through the ancient writ of habeas corpus. That denial of a basic tenet of American freedom can be restored if Congress follows the lead of the Senate Judiciary Committee and votes to extend habeas protection to detainees.

Yet even if Guantanamo is closed, and even if habeas is restored, the reflexive distrust of historic protections continues to erode America's international standing. This week, a federal appeals court ruled that the Bush administration had violated the rights of a citizen of Qatar legally residing in the United States by holding him indefinitely in a military prison in South Carolina on the basis of a presidential finding that he was an enemy combatant.

Even "high value" terrorist suspects have been prosecuted in ordinary federal courts: for example, admitted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But if special courts are necessary -- and legitimate security concerns may require them in limited cases -- they need to be much more faithful to American notions of justice than the tribunals created by the Military Commissions Act. Congress should close Guantanamo; then it should demand the restoration of American values in all trials. It is those values, after all, that uphold this nation's distinction -- no less in war than in peace.

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