Who needs Camp Delta?

October 07, 2004

IT TURNS OUT NOT SO many of the 550 men still held prisoner at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are likely "the worst of the worst," deserving to be "dealt with as people who have engaged in mass murder," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said. Or "killers," as President Bush has called them all. Their years of detention provide a good lesson as to why U.S. and international laws presume innocence, and set guidelines on how long people may be held without charges, access to lawyers or basic human rights.

"Even if somebody has been found to be an enemy combatant, many of them will be released because they will be of low intelligence value and low threat status," Army Brig. Gen. Martin Lucenti, Guantanamo's deputy commander, told London's Financial Times on Tuesday.

His is not a lone voice in the wilderness. The interrogators of prisoners at Guantanamo have not gleaned any information that resulted in preventing any terrorist act, Lt. Col. Anthony Christino, a senior watch officer for the Defense Department's terror-intelligence task force until he retired in June, told British journalist David Rose, as quoted in The Guardian on Sunday. Colonel Christino said most of the prisoners at Guantanamo had supported the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, but had had no contact with al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden.

While it may have been reasonable to collect suspects on the battlefields and in the streets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Army could have kept them at its Bagram base in Afghanistan as prisoners of war. Instead, it shipped them into a legal limbo - the construct of convenience called "enemy combatant" - under which it could do what it would with them without compunction or consequences for nearly three years. Only recently, responding to the dictates of the Supreme Court, has the military started its first formal status reviews, as well as a handful of kangaroo-court military commission hearings.

That's too long, not to mention a bad precedent for enemy countries that in the future detain U.S. citizens under similar circumstances.

Yet on Monday, the Bush administration argued again in federal court that the president could declare and detain "enemy combatants" indefinitely outside U.S. courts in order to "prevent the captured individual from serving the enemy." That's easily, and more fairly, done under the conventions applying to prisoners of war.

At the least, the Army should move quickly to release those at Guantanamo it does not plan to charge, prepare its cases against those it believes are guilty of acts of war against the United States and close Camp Delta. And next time, follow the rule of law.

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