Gitmo: A good idea gone bad

In theory, a special prison at Guantanamo Bay for captives in the war on terror made sense. It would be totally under U.S. control and unlike prisons in Afghanistan and Pakistan there was no chance the inmates could break out or bribe their way out.

It would give U.S. intelligence officials the leisure to question the prisoners, using approved techniques in effect since World War II, and decide whom to release, whom to try for war crimes and whom to hold until the cessation of hostilities.

In theory, at least. In practice, the Bush administration made Guantanamo Bay a worldwide symbol of U.S. arrogance, recklessness and disregard for both our own and international law. And the administration’s obsessive secrecy only compounded the problem. Perhaps the tales of abuse and humiliation of prisoners were exaggerated but absent independent observers, who would believe us? After the existence of the torture memos became known, no one.

The prisoners were originally to be tried by the administration’s military tribunals, kangaroo courts that were embarrassingly one-sided, basically leaving the verdict and the sentence up to the president and the secretary of Defense. It is a testament to the U.S. legal system that military and civilian defense lawyers won court victory after court victory reestablishing such basic rights as habeas corpus. But by the time the process got to that point, the brand, so to speak, of Guantanamo Bay was hopelessly tainted.

President Bush said he wanted to close the prison but the problem of how to do so was slow-walked into the Obama administration. Barack Obama’s advisers say that he is preparing an executive order closing the prison to be issued immediately after taking office.

Obama admits that closing the facility will be a "challenge" and that doing so may take as long as a year. An immediate problem is what to do with the prisoners cleared for release. Often their own countries don’t want them and other countries, among them the severest critics of Guantanamo Bay, don’t want them either.

Another problem is where to house the prisoners we plan to keep. Military prisons in Kansas, South Carolina and California have been proposed but local lawmakers have objected. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, suggest a new prison be built — but probably not in Kansas — to hold the terrorism detainees.

And then there is the problem of trying the prisoners. Obama’s aides say he is likely do away with the military commissions. That means the civilian courts, military courts martial or proposing legislation establishing a new system.

In theory, Guantanamo Bay was a good idea at the time, but seven years after it was opened the prison is an albatross around the nation’s neck.