President Barack Obama sought once more, in his speech yesterday at the National Archives, to address the problem of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere left by his predecessor.
While 240 captives remain at Guantanamo, Cuba, it isn't clear how many are at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Their open-ended detention - held without trial for years, threatened even by the Obama administration with trial by military commissions and not extended due process of law - is a shame to American standards of justice.
Now there are two problems. The first is what to do with the prisoners if, as Mr. Obama has promised, Guantanamo is closed by January. In his speech yesterday, at the place where the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are enshrined, he stuck to his guns on that, even though a pusillanimous Congress refused Wednesday to provide funds to close the prison.
The question of the fate of the remaining prisoners is further subdivided. Some of them should be able to be prosecuted in American courts. If so, which court and where? And where would they be held in the meantime? Despite much fear-mongering by congressional Republicans, that part should not be difficult. The United States has no shortage of maximum-security prisons, and escape from them is virtually impossible.
Although courts can have their backlogs, these prisoners have been held without due process of law and their cases deserve a high priority for trial.
The rest - against whom no case can be made because they've been tortured or the evidence against them has been mutilated, or because they should never have been detained at Guantanamo in the first place - must be released. It is inconsistent with American principles of justice to lock up people indefinitely without trial. That puts the United States in the same class as Burma, North Korea or Gambia.
Each prisoner has an identifiable nationality. If his home country will take him, send him home, cautioning its government that the United States will follow with interest its treatment and disposition of him. If his home country does not want him, pressure should be put on the nation to accept him anyway and let it find him another home.
There is no reason to accept the notion that the United States is forever responsible for the detainees' well-being. America does not take that position with respect to its own criminals. If a release were handled carefully, Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo could even be repatriated to Afghanistan. The idea that some of them might return to fight against U.S. troops, among other reasons because they hate America for how they were treated at Guantanamo, is an argument against the circumstances under which the prisoners were detained and treated, not a reason to hold them for the rest of their lives.
This is a mess left by the administration of President George W. Bush that must be cleaned up by President Obama. The approach now should be decisive action, as soon as possible.