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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

Clear out of `Gitmo'

The military base that the United States maintains at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is, in effect, a triple offense to Americans in its inconsistency with national principles and interests:

  • The U.S. no longer needs the base.

  • Holding prisoners scooped up in the Afghan war there is expensive, and basically a U .S. domestic political act.

  • And now, the idea of putting some of those prisoners - including British and Australian citizens - on trial before U.S. military tribunals is an offense to American principles of justice.

    The U.S. maintained a base at Guantanamo Bay after the 1898 Spanish-American War freed Cuba from Spain. The U.S. kept Guantamano to watch over Cuba and to have a base in addition to Puerto Rico from which to oversee the Panama Canal.

    It became more important, although never critical, in World War II and during the Cold War. But the Cold War was over in 1990, and Guantanamo has become irrelevant to the United States' policies regarding Fidel Castro's government.

    After the post-Sept. 11 fighting in Afghanistan, an unknown number of prisoners - Afghans, British, Australians, French, Yemenis, Sudanese, and even Americans - were taken there to be imprisoned.

    Given what are apparently the physical discomforts of the place, many Americans probably thought that was a good thing given the savagery of the Sept. 11 attacks. The problem is that at Guantanamo the prisoners are out of sight and out of mind. Held by the U.S. military, they do not have access to American due process of law, which includes habeas corpus - charge them or free them - independent appeal, or non-military lawyers.

    That may have been acceptable for a while, particularly while they were being interrogated to acquire fresh intelligence to ease the job of American security forces operating in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But it is now a year and a half later for some of them. Anything useful they knew has been extracted or is no longer useful.

    One reason the Bush Administration wanted to hold those captured in Afghanistan at Guantanamo instead of in the United States was specifically to keep them inaccessible to troublesome elements such as lawyers, civil rights activists, and even demonstrators.

    The most recent offense to our principles is the apparent plan of the Bush Administration to put at least six of the prisoners on trial at Guantanamo, reportedly including non-Afghan prisoners from the United Kingdom and Australia, before U.S. military tribunals. Some of the accused have been designated “enemy combatants,” as have also at least two American citizens.

    A new expensive courtroom facility has been built at Guantanamo for the event. The Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary of Halliburton, Vice President Cheney's former company, alone received an open-ended $300 million contract for construction at Guantanamo to accommodate the prisoners.

    All of this is easy to fix. Sort the prisoners into groups - the ones who will be put on trial and those who should now be repatriated to their countries of origin. The second group should be sent on their way. The first group should be brought to an appropriate facility in the United States and accorded due process under American law.

    We hesitate to assess whether they should be tried under U.S. civil or military law, but given that they were taken in combat we do not object to their being tried under the Universal Code of Military Justice, which does accord protections to defendants, although not an independent, non-military defense.

    Then, clear the Guantanamo base of everything of value, cancel the lease, and give it back to Cuba. Don't leave a pin. The Castro government will neither be benefited nor hurt. But the American taxpayer will definitely profit from unloading this unnecessary, expensive, and embarrassing former asset in the Caribbean.



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