Guantanamo north?

Posted: Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Obama administration is right to continue its steady march to close the detention facilities at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it will undermine the benefits of a closure if it merely moves detainees from one place to another without changing the policies that led to international condemnation of the prison.

The White House announced on Tuesday that it plans to purchase the Thomson, Ill., Correction Center, a state prison, to house some of the remaining 200 Guantanamo detainees. The prison was built in 2001 as a maximum-security center and can hold up to 1,600 inmates, although only 200 are currently there. The administration says that it plans to use different parts of the facility to hold federal criminal inmates and terrorism suspects. Plans call for construction of courtrooms for military commission proceedings.

Lawmakers should not stand in the way of this deal. Some in Congress have raised security concerns about holding terrorism suspects on U.S. soil. The fear-mongering ignores the fact that the United States has long imprisoned extremely dangerous defendants without incident.

But lawmakers should reject the administration's claim that it needs no new legal framework to govern possible indefinite detentions of terrorism suspects without charge. The administration points to the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force as permitting indefinite detention. It argues that federal court review is sufficient to protect the rights of detainees. And officials promise that a multi-agency executive task force will review prisoners' cases periodically to determine whether detention is still necessary or justified even if a federal court signs off on the original detention decision.

This is unacceptable. The president needs the ability to hold a suspect where there is hard intelligence that he is too dangerous to release. But no president - regardless of party - should be able to wield this power unilaterally, as the Obama administration argues it can. Congress should establish clear legal guidelines that require periodic judicial review, set out clear rules of evidence and guarantee each detainee has an attorney. President Barack Obama will defeat the purpose of closing Guantanamo if he continues to embrace the lawless policies of the past.

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