For many around the world, the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has become one of the most prominent, negative symbols of America's departure from the rule of law since 9/11.
Camp Delta, as the prison on Guantanamo is called, holds more than 520 men from about 40 countries. Many of these people have been detained there for more than three years; none has been given any indication of when, or even if, he will be released. The U.S. government has classified all of the detainees as "enemy combatants."
While that term is not recognized in international human rights or humanitarian law, it has provided the U.S. government with a rationale for denying detainees any rights whatsoever, either under the Geneva Conventions (the laws of war) or U.S. criminal law. This situation has prompted some Bush administration officials to dub Guantanamo "the legal equivalent of outer space." This label would also apply to the dozens of secret U.S. detention sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Jordan and aboard ships at sea.
But just as Guantanamo has become a powerful negative symbol, it has the potential to be a positive one if the United States is willing to take steps to recognize the possibility. One step, and it is a bold one, would be to shut down the Guantanamo prison - to close its doors and, in doing so, open a public debate among members of Congress, military officers and intelligence and law enforcement leaders on interrogation and detention practices around the world.
Shuttering Guantanamo not only would allow the United States to broadcast to the world its commitment to the rule of law - by moving all security detainees into an established legal process - it also would serve America's security interests. Those around the world who use the symbol of Guantanamo to fuel anti-American sentiments would lose one of their most potent rallying cries. And autocratic governments no longer would be able to hide behind American's example, as they do now, in justifying their own practices of indefinite detention and abuse.
The closing of Guantanamo would, by its very nature, require an evaluation of all the locations where the United States is holding security prisoners because Guantanamo derives much of its infamy from what it has wrought: Guantanamo was the testing ground for coercive interrogation techniques. Torture was exported to other facilities from there.
In the spring of 2003, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld explicitly approved 24 interrogation techniques for Guantanamo, including "dietary manipulation," "environmental manipulation," "sleep adjustment" and "isolation," all of which had been previously prohibited by U.S. law and explicit military policy. He did so despite strenuous objections from senior military lawyers, the FBI and others in the government. This policy is still in place.
By mid-2003, the military extended the Guantanamo rules to Iraq. In fact, in August 2003, the Pentagon sent the Guantanamo commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, to Abu Ghraib prison, reportedly with the instruction to "Gitmo-ize" the Iraqi prisons. The revelation of pictures from Abu Ghraib last spring tells part of that story.
But the story is much bigger - and more troubling - than what those photos depict. Consider this: Since December 2002, 108 people have died in U.S. custody, according to Pentagon figures. Of these deaths, no less than 28 were criminal homicides, the Defense Department acknowledges. The victims were tortured to death.
An official investigation into the cases of two young men who were beaten to death at a U.S.-run facility in Bagram, Afghanistan, revealed that more than two dozen soldiers were involved in these deaths. The interrogators believed that they could deviate from the well-tested rules because, as one said, "there was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for terrorists."
Despite its benefits, the prospect of Guantanamo being closed any time soon is unlikely. Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney said of the prison: "What we're doing down there has, I think, been done perfectly appropriately." And yet, the vice president's assertion flies in the face of leaked FBI and International Red Cross reports as well as comments by a former U.S. military translator who published his observations of detainee mistreatment and sexual humiliation.
What can be done when there is such a discrepancy between the facts and the official interpretation of them? In a democracy, the best way to deal with this is openness: Congress should authorize the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to conduct a thorough investigation of U.S. detention and interrogation policies worldwide. This would allow the United States to assess what went wrong and why and to recommend corrective action.
Until Congress does this, Guantanamo and the other U.S. detention centers will continue to serve as the symbol of America's tarnished reputation.