The President's Prison

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New York Times

The President's Prison


George Bush does not want to be rescued.

The president has been told countless times, by a secretary of state, by members of Congress, by heads of friendly governments — and by the American public — that the Guantánamo Bay detention camp has profoundly damaged this nation's credibility as a champion of justice and human rights. But Mr. Bush ignored those voices — and now it seems he has done the same to his new defense secretary, Robert Gates, the man Mr. Bush brought in to clean up Donald Rumsfeld's mess.

Thom Shanker and David Sanger reported in Friday's Times that in his first weeks on the job, Mr. Gates told Mr. Bush that the world would never consider trials at Guantánamo to be legitimate. He said that the camp should be shut, and that inmates who should stand trial should be brought to the United States and taken to real military courts.

Mr. Bush rejected that sound advice, heeding instead the chief enablers of his worst instincts, Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Their opposition was no surprise. The Guantánamo operation was central to Mr. Cheney's drive to expand the powers of the presidency at the expense of Congress and the courts, and Mr. Gonzales was one of the chief architects of the policies underpinning the detainee system. Mr. Bush and his inner circle are clearly afraid that if Guantánamo detainees are tried under the actual rule of law, many of the cases will collapse because they are based on illegal detention, torture and abuse — or that American officials could someday be held criminally liable for their mistreatment of detainees.

It was distressing to see that the president has retreated so far into his alternative reality that he would not listen to Mr. Gates — even when he was backed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, like her predecessor, Colin Powell, had urged Mr. Bush to close Guantánamo. It seems clear that when he brought in Mr. Gates, Mr. Bush didn't want to fix Mr. Rumsfeld's disaster; he just wanted everyone to stop talking about it.

If Mr. Bush would not listen to reason from inside his cabinet, he might at least listen to what Americans are telling him about the damage to this country's credibility, and its cost. When Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — for all appearances a truly evil and dangerous man — confessed to a long list of heinous crimes, including planning the 9/11 attacks, many Americans reacted with skepticism and even derision. The confession became the butt of editorial cartoons, like one that showed the prisoner confessing to betting on the Cincinnati Reds, and fodder for the late-night comedians.

What stood out the most from the transcript of Mr. Mohammed's hearing at Guantánamo Bay was how the military detention and court system has been debased for terrorist suspects. The hearing was a combatant status review tribunal — a process that is supposed to determine whether a prisoner is an illegal enemy combatant and thus not entitled in Mr. Bush's world to rudimentary legal rights. But the tribunals are kangaroo courts, admitting evidence that was coerced or obtained through abuse or outright torture. They are intended to confirm a decision that was already made, and to feed detainees into the military commissions created by Congress last year.

The omissions from the record of Mr. Mohammed's hearing were chilling. The United States government deleted his claims to have been tortured during years of illegal detention at camps run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Government officials who are opposed to the administration's lawless policy on prisoners have said in numerous news reports that Mr. Mohammed was indeed tortured, including through waterboarding, which simulates drowning and violates every civilized standard of behavior toward a prisoner, even one as awful as this one. And he is hardly the only prisoner who has made claims of abuse and torture. Some were released after it was proved that they never had any connection at all to terrorism.

Still, the Bush administration says no prisoner should be allowed to take torture claims to court, including the innocents who were tortured and released. The administration's argument is that how prisoners are treated is a state secret and cannot be discussed openly. If that sounds nonsensical, it is. It's also not the real reason behind the administration's denying these prisoners the most basic rights of due process.

The Bush administration has so badly subverted American norms of justice in handling these cases that they would not stand up to scrutiny in a real court of law. It is a clear case of justice denied.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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