Twelve years ago this week, 20 captives in the “war on terror” arrived at an isolated U.S. Navy base on the eastern tip of Cuba to inaugurate Camp X-Ray, opening a dismal chapter in the history of U.S. warfare and the treatment of detainees.
Over the years, it “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” as President Obama declared in a speech on May 23. The makeshift facility at Guantánamo Bay was born of a desperate effort by the Bush administration to find a place to house the captives of the irregular war against organized terrorists that would be beyond the reach of the Geneva Conventions and the intrusions of obstreperous attorneys and nosy journalists.
It wasn’t long before the courts slapped down the notion of a U.S.-run prison that was literally lawless. Since its opening, four cases involving detainee rights have gone before the U.S. Supreme Court, and four times the justices have sided with the detainees, forcing the government to uphold legal obligations that afford the captives a measure of due process.
But even so, the prison is still there, housing 155 inmates, all but eight without trial, even as hundreds more terrorism suspects, from the “shoe bomber” to the “underwear bomber,” have been convicted in federal civil courts. But rather than heeding Mr. Obama’s pleas to close the prison, members of Congress have imposed restrictions that slowed the transfer of prisoners to a virtual standstill.
Meanwhile, attorneys do their best under Guantánamo’s frustrating rules of procedure to provide legal assistance to the captives, and journalists try to shed some light on the activities at the notorious prison — even as camp authorities erect new barriers against transparency.
Under Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, institutional censorship has increased recently. Authorities no longer disclose the number of prisoners engaged in a camp-wide hunger strike, an embarrassment that once again focused unwanted attention on conditions at the prison.
In addition, the command imposed new rules that prohibit most soldiers from giving their names to reporters they talk to. In another instance, a military staff attorney assigned to the camp for ex-CIA captives was allowed to testify under a pseudonym — a mockery of genuine trial proceedings. Meanwhile, long-promised parole hearings finally got under way (in secrecy), but more than one month later, only part of the promised transcript of the pleadings has been made public.
The existence of Guantánamo is a national embarrassment, but erecting new barriers against news reporting will only make matters worse. As long as the prison exists, maximum transparency should be the operative rule.