- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

President Obama is learning it is a lot easier to reverse unpopular positions of his predecessor than it is to come up with better ones of his own.

On Thursday, he signed executive orders aimed at shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which houses some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. His orders also restricted interrogation methods that can be used by the CIA to elicit information from suspects and eliminated secret CIA-run overseas detention facilities.

Earlier, he suspended military commission hearings established to hear cases against those held at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Now he has to decide what to do with the 245 men held at Guantanamo. And, if he is lucky enough to see Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri captured on his watch, he’ll have to decide what to do with them. Ensure they’re read their Miranda rights and appointed taxpayer-funded legal counsel, perhaps?

It’s no joke. The philosophical shift between treating accused terrorists captured on foreign soil as enemy combatants or simply heinous criminals is an important distinction. The Clinton administration dealt with those responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 as the latter. (In fairness, no one knew at the time that the perpetrators were involved in more than a criminal conspiracy.) But Mohamed Atta and his 18 fellow soldiers made sure we understood on Sept. 11, 2001, that their attacks were acts of war against the United States.

It is tempting to believe the worst is over - that we won’t be hit again, maybe even harder than we were just eight years ago. Some Democrats are sure nothing George W. Bush did made us safer, and many of them would argue Mr. Bush sacrificed important constitutional guarantees without gaining any measure of security.

But I think it is highly implausible that pure luck has protected us. Waterboarding may be nasty business, but if the technique indeed forced Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to reveal details in 2003 of planned attacks and thus saved lives - as Bush officials have asserted - is it responsible to say there are no circumstances, ever, in which it might be used again? And would the Obama administration go further, as Attorney General nominee Eric Holder hinted in his confirmation hearings, and seek to prosecute those who ordered or carried out waterboarding?

So what will the Obama administration do with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others at Guantanamo? If the military commission established to try these men will no longer do so, will they be turned over to criminal courts in the United States? If so, it is likely many would be acquitted on the basis of “tainted evidence” and lack of due process alone. Then what? Do we put them on airplanes and ship them home? Or will human rights groups protest that countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt might torture these men so we must not send them there?

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero has offered President Obama his support and help in closing Guantanamo, but is Mr. Zapatero willing to take any of those prisoners deemed too dangerous to release and put them in Spanish jails?

In his Inaugural address, Mr. Obama promised “for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” But actions speak louder than words. We’ll see if he means it.

As President Obama no doubt has figured out, closing Guantanamo while preserving national security will take more than a stroke of the pen. He risks alienating the left-wing base of his party if the barbed wire doesn’t come down immediately. But the stakes are much higher if he lets terrorists loose on the world.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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