Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

It’s looking like forever


OUR OPINION: President, Congress put Gitmo detainees in permanent limbo

GUANTÁNAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The cultural adviser to the commander of the detention center, the war-on-terror facility that opened here in January 2002, says he advises the hotheads who are bent on making trouble to cool it: “Wait a little longer. This place is going to close.”

He explains, “Nothing lasts forever, right? And that’s what the president said, right?”

He appears to believe what he says, and may be correct on both counts. Candidate Barack Obama did promise, after all, to close the prison because it had become a symbol of America’s disregard for civil liberties in its zeal to pursue an unending war against a new type of foe who did not fit the traditional idea of an enemy soldier.

As president, Mr. Obama soon learned that it would be an impossible task. Congress would not allow him to close the prison because its members did not want to move the “detainees” to a mainland prison. Nor did lawmakers want them to stand trial under the criminal-justice system, despite the fact that hundreds of accused terrorists have been convicted in federal courts since 9/11. Even one of Osama bin Laden’s sons-in-law is on trial in New York.

But even as Mr. Obama still insists that removing the remaining 154 detainees and closing the prison remain priorities — it’s been years since the camp received a new arrival — there is no sign here, as there is no sign in Congress, that closing Guantánamo is a realistic goal for the foreseeable future.

The prison may have been thought of as temporary when it opened more than 12 years ago, but any number of buildings that seem permanent have sprung up to accommodate both U.S. military guards and accused terrorists.

Camps 5 and 6, which house most of the detainees seem very permanent. Briefers tell reporters these two adjacent facilities, just a small part of the larger detention camp, cost roughly $54.5 million, and the military has spent millions more on medical and other additional facilities.

Like soldiers who have been posted to Iraq and Afghanistan, some guards have been to Gitmo for more than one tour. One, a 34-year-old from California, says he is on his third tour, and would come back for a fourth if he were asked. He will probably have the opportunity.

Nor is there obvious planning to close the prison. There is no talk of a “last rotation” or the next chapter in the war. Doctors say none of the prisoners they treat are “geriatric,” but concede that some prisoners are showing signs of aging. After all, some have been here for 10 years or more. One has been here since Day One.

As an improvised response to 9/11, the facility had a reason for existence. As a permanent facility — which is what it has become — it cannot be explained away or rationalized, not when the country’s criminal justice system is an acceptable, indeed, far preferable, legal alternative.

All U.S. combat troops are out of Iraq, fulfilling President Obama’s promise. And by year’s end, all U.S. combat troops may be out of Afghanistan, as well. But Gitmo will still be here.

The young men and women who have been asked to perform their military duty here believe they are doing the right thing. They are safeguarding America by keeping those deemed the nation’s worst enemies confined. But considering that what started out as an improvised solution has now become permanent — no one can predict when, if ever, it will close — it’s fair to ask: Who is really confined and unable to leave?

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