Not so fast

July 09, 2004

THE DEFENSE Department has announced that it will quickly review the cases of the nearly 600 captives at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to see if they really are "enemy combatants." It's about time - most have been held more than two years - but it's not enough.

As the Supreme Court rightly reminded the executive branch last week, the United States does not hold people indefinitely without charging them with anything, and people taken into custody have the right to challenge that custody in court. Not a military pseudo-review, not without access to a lawyer, not under the presumption that the government's case is good and it's up to the prisoner to prove it's not.

The "Combatant Status Review Tribunal" closely follows the proposed annual detainee review process, though the military hasn't worked out the details of how either will work. Detainees will be assigned a military officer to present their defense; the officer will not be a lawyer, so it is unclear if attorney-client privilege would be maintained. Detainees can see some of the information used against them, but not the "classified" part; the administration has repeatedly said all information about them is classified, and has never made their names public.

The military is trying to kick-start this one-time review so it will have fodder to argue that it has been following due process as the civil lawsuits challenging its right to hold the detainees start rolling in. It's a cheap and grudging acknowledgement that these prisoners have rights.

Rights they even now don't know about: Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has instructed Navy Secretary Gordon R. England that he has 10 days to tell Guantanamo detainees in their native language of their right to contest their captivity. Even English-speakers have not yet been told of their restored rights, according to the British newspaper The Guardian.

The paper also cites two Britons released this year from Guantanamo who said U.S. interrogation techniques included telling them they had no rights. Is the military hoping to squeeze out some last-minute tidbits of information?

The administration needs to follow the meaning of the rulings - and the meaning of the law. What has been done is inadequate; what will be done must be better.

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