The cost of Guantanamo

The hunger strike by inmates protesting conditions at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba is forcing the Obama administration to revisit its policy of indefinite detention without trial for terrorist suspects. It's about time. As Mr. Obama noted Tuesday, the current policy is legally and morally unsustainable, and continuing it damages America's standing around the world without making the country any safer. The president needs to finally make good on his 2009 pledge to close Guantanamo, repatriate low-risk detainees to prisons in their home countries and bring the rest to the U.S. for trial.

About 100 of the 166 inmates held there are reportedly engaging in the hunger strike, including 21 who are being force-fed to keep them alive by means of tubes inserted through their nostrils and down their throats. Human rights and physicians groups charge that such force-feeding is a form of abuse akin to torture and that it violates medical ethics.

This hunger strike is the only thing that seems to have been able to get the president's attention since Congress blocked his initial effort to close Guantanamo and restricted the use of federal funds to move the detainees elsewhere. Congress imposed those restrictions on the grounds that the presence of suspected Islamist terrorists on U.S. soil posed an unacceptable risk to Americans. But its real objective seems to have been simply to thwart the president's ability to fulfill a campaign promise and to create a festering crisis to blame him for.

There's no reason that the majority the Guantanamo detainees can't be held safely at the maximum security facility in Illinois where Mr. Obama initially planned to send them, nor is there any reason why they can't be tried and convicted in U.S. federal courts, which have already passed judgment on dozens of other terrorist suspects and sentenced them to lengthy prison terms. It's absurd to claim the Guantanamo detainees might have a better chance of escaping from a federal Supermax-style prison than any of the thousands of other prisoners held there, or that their presence in the U.S. would make the country any more inviting a target for terrorist attacks than it already is.

The president already has the power to repatriate low-risk detainees to their home countries, where they could either be rehabilitated or remain under detention by local authorities. About 56 of the 86 detainees who were designated as low-risk candidates for potential transfer in 2010 are from Yemen. That's posed a sticking point for the president because of fears that a branch of al-Qaida operating there might seek to free detainees released from Guantanamo by attacking government facilities or through hostage-taking. But California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently suggested that the U.S. could help Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a staunch opponent of the terrorist group, build up his security apparatus sufficiently to safely send the Yemenis back.

Mr. Obama's assessment of the situation was right on the mark when he told reporters that "it is crucial for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe," and that the expense of maintaining it eats up government resources that could be put to better use. There are a small number of high-risk, high-value detainees, perhaps 15 or so, whom the government considers too dangerous ever to release but who cannot be prosecuted in U.S. courts because there is not enough evidence to convict them, or because they were tortured by the CIA before their arrival in Guantanamo.

The hunger strike at Guantanamo has put but all these issues back on the president's radar. Mr. Obama will have to carefully consider his options regarding what to do with the highest-risk detainees, which may include shipping them off to a country that is willing to detain them indefinitely. But the cost of maintaining the Guantanamo facility — both in dollars and in diminished moral authority — is simply too great. It must be closed.

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