The U.S. military has investigated whether Korans were mistreated at the Guantanamo Bay prison. And it found in five cases the Korans had been, both intentionally and inadvertently and in one case just plain stupidly _ two Korans were soaked when the night shift guards threw water balloons at the prisoners.

Rather lost in the controversy was the fact that the U.S. military provided the Korans, along with Muslim chaplains and arrows in each cell pointing to Mecca. Other incidents may come to light but the military is almost certainly right in calling them rare and never condoned.

And as prisons go Guantanamo may be spartan but it’s not inhumane and very likely inmates at some of our own state prisons and country jails would swap places.

But the damage has been done and even our allies are prepared to believe the worst of Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty International’s characterization of it as a “gulag” was inexcusable _ both because it is flat wrong and an insult to the memory of the millions who died in the Soviet slave labor camps _ but it’s indicative of world opinion.

Initially, there was a justification for some facility like this, but the Bush administration put it in the worst possible light at every step of the way.

There was the invention of an “illegal combatant,” a status the administration deemed outside any U.S. or international law. It gave rise to the administration’s chilling assertion that it could imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial. There was the humiliating manner in which the prisoners were brought to Guantanamo. There was the excessive secrecy. And there is the opaque, one-sided and excruciatingly slow process of sorting out who’s a bad guy and who should be sent home.

The Bush administration has steadily been losing to court challenges related to Guantanamo and now Congress has belatedly perked up and taken an interest in our treatment of 540 inmates scooped up around the world.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is planning legislation to establish legal guidelines for detentions and a mechanism for the detainees to challenge them.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for an independent commission to study Guantanamo and determine whether it should be kept open and, if so, how it should be run. Biden himself thinks the prison should be closed.

As the fate of the prison comes to a head, the Bush administration must decide whether it’s worth the grief and embarrassment of keeping it open.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)