Guantanamo on trial

President Barack Obama came into office pledging to close the Guantanamo Bay 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 the 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-Qaida 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, they allege, 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. Ever since the president signed an executive order two days after taking office directing the closure of the facility within a year, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder has 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 American citizens.

Even New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, known for his unflappable approach to problems, balked at the prospect of trying Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in his city after realizing the security arrangements required by such a proceeding would likely be prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, there are still about 50 detainees at Guantanamo who remain in a virtual legal limbo. The government admits it lacks enough evidence to convict them, but they are nevertheless considered too dangerous to release. So the administration seems resigned to holding them indefinitely without charges and without bringing them to trial — in effect, continuing the policy of indefinite detention that Mr. Obama so sharply criticized as a candidate.

In the long run, that's not a sustainable policy. All the reasons Mr. Holder has advanced for closing Guantanamo — that it's a propaganda tool for al-Qaida, that it alienates us from our allies in the fight against terrorism, that it undermines the basic principle of the rule of law in a democratic society — remain as cogent as ever. Political reality has forced Mr. Obama to backpedal on his promise to shut Guantanamo down quickly, but he shouldn't abandon it as a goal by the end of his first term in office. It's never going to be an easy decision to make, but it will only get harder the longer he waits.

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