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The disappointments of Guantanamo

President Obama came into office pledging to close the Guantanamo detention center in Cuba and to try terrorist suspects in U.S. courts rather than in military tribunals overseas. Yet a year and a half into his presidency Mr. Obama still has not succeeded in closing the facility, and the first trial of a terrorist suspect opened there this week before a military tribunal.

That trial is rightly being closely watched now as a bellwether of how the Obama administration plans to deal with the thicket of political, legal and ethical issues raised by Guantanamo facility’s role in the war on terror.

The case involves a 23-year-old Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, who was captured by U.S. special forces in Afghanistan eight years ago, when he was only 15. Prosecutors allege that during a four-hour firefight around an Al-Qaeda compound, Mr. Khadr threw a grenade that killed an American soldier, an act to which he later confessed to military interrogators at Bagram air base outside Kabul.

Mr. Khadr’s lawyers argued the confession should be thrown out because their client was tortured and made the statements only after he had been threatened with death and rape. But that claim was rejected by the Army colonel overseeing the trial.

More troubling are the charges of United Nations officials and human rights activists, who say that because Mr. Khadr was only 15 when he was captured, he was essentially a "child soldier" who was forced to participate in armed conflict, not a willing enemy combatant.  Instead of facing trial, they argue, he should be offered help in rebuilding his life.

 Mr. Khadr’s case has highlighted the divisions in the Obama administration over how to deal with terrorist suspects at Guantanamo. After Mr. Obama signed an executive order two days after taking office directing the closure of the facility within a year, U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder insisted the detainees could be securely held and tried in the U.S. But state and local officials have consistently thrown up roadblocks to that plan, arguing terrorists on U.S. soil would endanger their constituents.

Even New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, known for his unflappable approach to problems, balked at the prospect of trying 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammad in his city after realizing the security arrangements such a proceeding would require would be prohibitively expensive.

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