For months, the Bush administration all but defied the Supreme Court to intervene regarding the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last week, the justices finally did.
The Supreme Court will consider whether the courts have any jurisdiction over non-American citizens detained on foreign soil. More than two years after 9/11, the country still is groping for ways to define and prosecute its enemies. The 660 prisoners at Guantanamo were captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the government has held them incommunicado as “enemy combatants” because of alleged links to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The administration has refused to follow Geneva Convention requirements that they receive hearings before military tribunals and has denied them access to lawyers and visitors. The government even has refused to say who is being held or for exactly what reasons.
In the absence of a declared war, the detainees face an imprisonment that is interminable. Nations return prisoners of war after hostilities cease. But who can say when the war on terrorism ends? The same government that claims absolute discretion in ignoring international law also can claim to be engaged in an unending campaign against terrorists. Guantanamo has become a zone without rules or adherence to human rights.
For a time, the administration had legitimate reasons to question prisoners in secret; they might have had intelligence about possible attacks. But after nearly two years at the camp, the useful information about Al-Qaeda has surfaced. Running a secret prison does nothing to make Americans safer but does a lot to diminish the country’s standing before the world. Among the detainees who have appealed to the U.S. courts are two Britons, two Australians and a dozen Kuwaitis whose governments have complained about their treatment. The nation that others looked to as a champion for human rights now embarrasses itself with disdain for them. Even the usually taciturn International Red Cross complained.
Battlefield justice is best left to the military, but the executive branch has so overstepped that the Supreme Court had to intervene. The justices cannot allow Guantanamo, over which the government has clear sovereignty, to become the private, permanent limbo for an administration that makes up rules as it needs them.