The shadow of Gitmo

The detention facility at Guantanamo remains a thorny problem that won’t soon be resolved. President Obama clearly underestimated the complexity of the issues involved when he promised, as a candidate, to shut it down, and when he signed his first executive order promising to have that shut-down complete by the end of his first year in office.

But the blame doesn’t lie solely with Obama. Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike – stood in the way of holding civilian trials for some of the true terrorists being held in Gitmo. But, as reporting on a new batch of leaked documents confirms, Gitmo was poorly conceived and poorly run from the beginning. With hardened terrorists mixed in, seemingly at random, with apparently innocent men held for years, the prison was destined to be a thorny problem.

Gitmo was un-American from its conception, conceived as a legal no-man’s land where the Bush administration could hold terror suspects indefinitely without any court review and conduct “enhanced interrogation” at will.

U.S. courts, despite the incredible deference traditionally shown to wartime presidents, repeatedly chastised the president for overstepping his authority and denying Gitmo suspects basic legal rights. By 2006, even Bush realized that Guantanamo needed to be shut down, eventually.

But the wheels of justice grind very slowly, and there are still 172 men being held in Guantanamo. The latest release of classified documents obtained by Wikileaks include intelligence assessments of those prisoners and the other 607 who were held there and subsequently released or transferred to other nations.

Far from a holding pen for the worst of the worst, Guantanamo appears to have been a dumping ground for a hodge-podge of suspects – some truly dangerous, other low-level figures, at best. A judge said of one such low-level al-Qaida fighter held in Gitmo for years, “It does not appear he even finished his weapons training. There is no evidence that he fired a weapon in battle or was on the front lines.”

As a McClatchy Newspapers investigation I wrote about in 2008 determine, many of the detainees in Gitmo “were turned in for the bounty offered by the U.S. in the months after 9/11, their roles inflated or imagined by those who turned them in — often in retaliation for personal grudges or tribal rivalries. Many others were low-level foot soldiers for the Taliban who should have been treated as ordinary POWs — and could have if President Bush hadn’t been so insistent on ignoring the Geneva Conventions.”

Guantanamo was an illegitimate exercise from the beginning. It’s not surprising that it has turned into a complicated mess that has most certainly done more harm than good for American security. Erasing this stain on American principles will take years.

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