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Guantanamo won't go away

If we captured Osama bin Laden and put him there, it would make it even harder to close the detention center.

February 19, 2011

It was supposed to be one of President Obama's priorities. But the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center has been delayed — if not rendered impossible — by congressional opposition in which the president unfortunately has acquiesced. This week the administration itself seemed to erect another barrier to closure when CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said that, if captured, Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri, probably would be held at Guantanamo, perhaps after questioning at the U.S. air base at Bagram, Afghanistan.

Shortly after his inauguration, Obama issued an executive order closing Guantanamo, saying that he wanted to "restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism." Those words still ring true, as does Obama's argument that Guantanamo, which to much of the world symbolizes mistreatment of prisoners, has become a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

But closing the facility is opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. They refuse to accept the administration's assurances that detainees will be held and tried in secure locations, such as a "supermax" prison in Illinois.

The administration has criticized congressional resistance, but earlier this year Obama signed a defense authorization bill that barred funding for transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. Presumably he will lobby Congress not to include those restrictions in future legislation, but that will be harder if new prisoners, notorious or otherwise, are brought to the facility.

Not only would imprisoning top Al Qaeda figures at Guantanamo make it more difficult to close the facility, but it also would prevent their being transported to the U.S. for trial if Congress continued to bar such transfers. Ironically, by allowing some prisoners to be sent to Guantanamo, Obama would be undermining his own policy.

If Bin Laden is captured, the administration surely will argue that he can be detained under the laws of war. But it also is likely to put him on trial for mass murder or war crimes. Whether that is a civilian trial (our preference) or a proceeding before a military commission, the location should be the United States. Guantanamo represented an effort by the Bush administration to create a legal black hole outside the United States; Obama shouldn't maintain that outpost or establish another one in Afghanistan.

After Panetta's comments, other officials said Obama hasn't given up on his plan to close Guantanamo. If that's true, he needs to hang a "No Vacancy" sign there.

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