- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

President Obama, during his first full day in office, signed an executive order temporarily halting military tribunals for terrorist suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Yesterday, he ordered the closing of that facility within one year. He signed another executive order shutting down “black sites” — secret locations where CIA and foreign security services interrogated terror suspects abroad. Let’s hope Mr. Obama has thought this thing out, in order to ensure that none of these actions present a clear and present danger.

Undoubtedly, the gaggle of antiwar groups that have protested the treatment of enemy combatants is sincere. Golly, most detainees are held in mesh-sided cells, and the lights are kept on during all hours, even while the detainees are trying to sleep. Gee, they are often kept in isolation, and are generally only allowed to converse in groups of no more than three people. Wow, when being transported to other parts of the camp, they are required to wear blindfolds. Some who have been released (and this is straight from one of the protesting organizations) claim that they underwent spiritual torture as they were denied access to their religious books of study. This is horrifying stuff! Why so many of these detainees are appealing not to be sent back to their own countries for further carrying out of their cases is baffling.

OK, enough of the sarcasm. The prison at Guantanamo Bay, or “Gitmo,” as the swabs call it, has become a symbol. Just as a few MPs at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq acted disgracefully (seven were convicted by courts martial, sentenced to prison and given dishonorable discharges), there may be legal wrongs and/or morally questionable acts that interrogation personnel conducted at Gitmo or other sites. The Cuban naval base is not considered by the court system to be a part of the United States, and therefore detainees are denied rights granted to criminals under the U.S. Constitution.

Earlier this month the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency reported that 18 former Gitmo detainees were confirmed to have returned to terrorism since their release from custody, and another 43 are suspected of “returning to the fight.” That’s 61 of about 500 militants and terror suspects freed or transferred to other governments since the first detainees arrived at Gitmo in 2002. The report is based on fingerprints, photographs and intelligence reports, and one wonders how many have been involved in terrorist activity without the U.S. government finding out. Fifty of the 255 men still held there cannot return to their home countries because of the risk they would be tortured or persecuted there.

The characters at Gitmo are reminiscent of a scene out of a 1967 movie, “The Dirty Dozen,” about a dozen psychopaths, murderers and assorted other criminals in a World War II Army prison, promised release if they go on a special mission. Their commander, Maj. Reisman (Lee Marvin), looks them over and asks the MP, Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaekel), “What do you think?” to which he replies, “I think the first chance one of these guys gets, he’ll shoot the Major in the back.” President Bush prevented that sort of possibility. President Obama needs to consider this also.

One case that illustrates the potential pratfalls involved in freeing Gitmo detainees is that of Mohammed Qahtani - the suspected “20th hijacker” who tried to gain entry to the United States in order to participate in the September 11 attacks. Mohammed Atta, who piloted American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center, went to meet Qahtani on Aug. 4, 2001, when he arrived at the airport in Orlando, Fla. But Qahtani was denied entry to the United States by a suspicious Customs agent. So, he made his way to the battlefield, where he was captured in December 2001 and subsequently turned over to U.S. forces. On Jan. 14, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about Qahtani titled: “Detainee Tortured, Says U.S. Official.” The story quoted Susan J. Crawford, the top Pentagon official charged wth deciding whether to bring Gitmo detainees to trial, as stating that Qahtani was “tortured” with techniques that included sustained isolation, sleep deprivation and nudity.

Buried 11 paragraphs inside the story was another quote from Judge Crawford, which should serve as a warning to people about the dangers posed by Gitmo detainees like Qahtani. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been on one of those [planes hijacked on September 11] had he gained access to the country in August 2001, ” Judge Crawford said. “He’s a muscle hijacker … He’s a very dangerous man. What do you do with him now if you don’t charge him and try him? I would be hesitant to say, ‘Let him go.’ ” Mr. Obama would do well to move cautiously when it comes to reversing the Bush administration’s approach to dealing with people like Qahtani - an approach that has helped keep this nation safe for more than seven years.