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A sorry business


KNOCKING Halliburton is easy. The defense contractor once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney has made a ton of money from the wars of the Bush administration. Criticizing U.S. abuse of prisoners from those wars is easy, too; in fact, it's like shooting fish in a barrel because the abuses have been so flagrant, the contrition has been so lacking, the useful intelligence gleaned from the detainees has been so scarce, and the damage to America's standing and honor has been so spectacular.

But now this: A subsidiary of Halliburton has just been awarded a $30 million contract to build a new prison building at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. True, $30 million is spare change for a company that has been accused of overbilling many times that amount in Iraq, where it has $10 billion worth of Army work orders, and moreover, the prison being constructed on that tropical isle will feature gleaming exercise rooms, medical bays and air conditioning - but all that misses the point. The United States has no business stashing felons or anyone else in Cuba. This is not because it's cruel to them (though it is) but because it's so bad for the United States. Guantanamo is a blot, a stain, a focal point for all those people around the world who are convinced Americans can do no good.

It should be shut down. The detainees should be charged with crimes or given prisoner-of-war status or just let go; their continued incarceration there simply isn't worth it.

But the people running the Bush administration just barge ahead, seemingly unaware or untroubled by the way they're perceived. Halliburton a war profiteer? How could that be? Kicking a prisoner to death an act of torture? How do you figure that?

Next month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will decide what to do with Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who was in charge in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandals. One idea being taken seriously is to give him a promotion. That would require Senate confirmation, and what politician with Hispanic voters on his mind would care to object, especially when the Army itself has been so sublimely unwilling to hold the general responsible for the crimes committed under his command? Political genius, undoubtedly, if all you care about is embarrassing Democrats. A huge blunder, on the other hand, if you stop to think about America's tattered reputation.

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