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Supreme Court Ruling Adds to Momentum for Major Changes at Guantanamo

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Today’s decision by the Supreme Court not to hear a case challenging the provision of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that restricted detainees’ habeas corpus rights provides fresh impetus to a Congress that was already pushing for major changes to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s plan to try Guantanamo detainees before special military commissions in June 2006, Congress quickly responded with the Military Commissions Act that not only allowed evidence obtained by torture, but stripped jurisdiction from U.S. courts to hear habeas corpus claims from Guantanamo detainees. Today’s decision simply affirms that legislative action, although the Court did warn that it may still take up this issue in the future.

Let’s hope Congress responds to this Supreme Court decision with equal vigor. Several Senators have already introduced legislation to amend the Military Commissions Act to restore habeas rights and prohibit evidence gathered in coercive interrogations. Attention in the House is more focused on efforts led by Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) to close Guantanamo and transfer the detainees to military prisons in the United States.

Just last week, Moran found an unexpected ally in new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. At a hearing before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee last Thursday, Gates told lawmakers that he came to his job in January hoping to close Guantanamo because, “there is a taint about it.”

Gates’ constructive attitude to work with, rather than against, Congress as it examines alternatives to Guantanamo is a refreshing change from an administration better known for confrontation than cooperation. This new approach offers hope that significant improvements can be made, and none too soon, because Gates is right—Guantanamo has severely damaged America’s ability to lead a united global alliance against terrorism.

The debate has also spilled over into the presidential campaigns. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has endorsed a proposal first made by the Center for American Progress in 2005 to close Guantanamo and move the detainees to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. The USDB, opened in 1874, is the longest serving prison in the federal system and its personnel are the best trained and most experienced in managing a prison population in the armed forces. The USDB is the only maximum security facility in the U.S. military prison system and has a Special Housing Unit that can accommodate nearly 100 high security prisoners, far more than the 60-80 Guantanamo detainees likely to be tried in military commissions.

Making improvements to U.S. detainee policy is very important, even if last week brought the first guilty plea in one of the newly constituted commissions. David Hicks, an Australian convert to Islam captured in Afghanistan, plead guilty to providing material support for terrorists and received a nine month sentence.

I will say that again; the first person convicted at Guantanamo after more than five years in custody was sentenced to nine months in prison. Not exactly the kind of sentence one would expect for the first example of the kinds of terrorists then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described as “the worst of the worst.”

Some clearly fit that description, like admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad. The exposure of terrorists like Khalid Sheik Mohammad for the mass murderers that they are should be a great victory for the United States in the battle of ideas. When the true nature of these despicable criminals is revealed to the world it undermines support for their cause and ideology.

Yet the “taint” of Guantanamo turns what should have been a great victory into another missed opportunity, as much of the coverage of Khalid Sheik Mohammad’s admission of guilt also included his allegations of torture and mistreatment while in U.S. custody.

The truth is that the majority of 380 detainees still at Guantanamo are not the worst of the worst. Closing Guantanamo and moving the detainees to Ft. Leavenworth and improving the military commissions are the necessary first steps to regain the offensive against the terrorists and restore American leadership in the alliance against terrorism.


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