Start winning back moral high ground

All but the most far-gone adepts of the Chicken Little Right have long understood the need to shut down the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The damage done to U.S. prestige has been incalculable, enabling its enemies to portray Ame...

All but the most far-gone adepts of the Chicken Little Right have long understood the need to shut down the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The damage done to U.S. prestige has been incalculable, enabling its enemies to portray America's vaunted commitment to democratic values, human rights and the rule of law as a sham.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates long has advocated closing Guantanamo. As President Barack Obama signed the executive order last week, he was surrounded by 16 retired admirals and generals who'd urged the action. Major Gen. Paul Eaton, who has a son on duty in the Middle East, told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer that "torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid and the pseudo-tough. It's also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have."

This last point can't be stressed enough. By turning tyrant and bully, placing itself outside and above the Geneva Conventions, which outlaw cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the Bush administration forfeited the moral high ground, no doubt creating 100 Islamic extremists for every one incarcerated at Guantanamo.

Incapable of admitting error, the previous administration preferred sophomoric debates about the existence of evil and the brutality of war. So it should surprise nobody that some Republicans appeared to see closing Guantanamo as a chance to plant a partisan time bomb under the Obama White House.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney spent much of their last week in office taking credit for something that didn't happen, possibly because many things that did don't exactly redound to their glory.


Cheney expressed no regrets whatsoever. He told CBS News that thanks to the Bush administration, "the thing that I feel most strongly about is this question of how we've managed to keep the nation safe from further terrorist attacks for the last seven and a half years."

Fair enough, although al-Qaida's top leadership remains at large. Nor is it clear that any large-scale attempts have been made. The purpose of terrorism isn't military victories; it's political and psychological. A 2006 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that American tactics in the so-called Global War on Terror "helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism" and that "the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks."

Bush told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that closing Guantanamo could be dangerous. "You've got a bunch of cold-blooded killers down there," he said, "that, if they ever get out, they're going to come and kill Americans. And I'd hate to be the person that made that decision."

Marc A. Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter, made the threat explicit in a Washington Post column: "If Obama weakens any of the defenses Bush put in place and terrorists strike our country again, Americans will hold Obama responsible -- and the Democratic Party could find itself unelectable for a generation."

How's that for elevating party over country? What if the Clinton administration, which also prevented terrorist attacks on U.S. soil after the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, had taken such a stance?

On cue, gullible media accounts began to appear claiming that 63 detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist activities. (Gullible because the numbers won't stand up to skeptical scrutiny. Some have been called terrorists for writing newspaper columns or appearing in documentary films.)

The New York Times reported that one prisoner released to Saudi Arabia last year has emerged as "the deputy leader of al-Qaida's Yemeni branch" and is suspected in a fatal bombing there.

Several points need to be made. First, it's not Obama who set these men free; it was the Bush administration. Second, it's already known that many Guantanamo detainees are guilty of no crimes against the United States, of which the best-known are 17 ethnic Uighurs (Chinese Muslims) imprisoned because it's feared they'd be tortured or executed if sent home.


Third, it's unclear how many of the rest are like an Afghan boy named Mohammed Jawad, captured at age 15 and tortured into signing a confession written in Farsi, a language he neither speaks nor reads. Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld was the government's leading prosecutor until he became persuaded there was no credible evidence and resigned his commission to urge the boy's release.

Incoming prosecutors charged with making determinations about which detainees to charge with what crimes have been shocked to learn that in many instances, no case files exist. That's what happens when you abandon the rule of law in a spirit of tribal vengeance.

Finally, the United States and other civilized countries have been trying and convicting genuine terrorists in courts of law for a generation. They're incarcerated in maximum-security prisons all over the civilized world. This isn't a vampire movie, where armies of superhuman foes march impervious to harm. A strong, confident nation can defeat al-Qaida without shaming itself.

-- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of

"The Hunting of the President."

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