Long before President Obama took office, pretty much everyone, even President George Bush, said the prison at Guantánamo Bay needed to be closed. In June 2007, the White House claimed it was working on a “number of steps” that had to happen first — but getting started was really hard.
Well, maybe not so hard. It took President Obama less than 12 hours. Before midnight of his first day in office, he took the obvious and vital step of halting the military tribunals at the prison camp. And he reportedly is considering a draft executive order that would direct that the prison be closed entirely within a year.
All reasonable people, including many of the defense lawyers and some of the judges and prosecutors assigned to them, recognize these tribunals for what they are: a mockery of American standards of justice and due process.
The retired judge who runs them told Bob Woodward of The Washington Post recently that she had to reject prosecution of a Saudi man accused of planning to take part in the 9/11 attacks because the case had been tainted by torture. At least one prosecutor has resigned because he considered the cases rigged.
Mr. Obama rightly denounced the tribunals during the campaign. And we were delighted to see him shut them down so swiftly now that he is in the White House.
Mr. Obama’s decision came in a legal filing by military prosecutors, which described the halt as temporary, to give the administration time “to review the military commission process, generally, and the cases currently pending before the military commissions, specifically.”
We presume that is a legal nicety. There is no good reason to restart these trials and doing so would send precisely the wrong signal to the world. We’re now eagerly awaiting Mr. Obama’s announcement of the process by which he will shut Guantánamo and what he will do with its estimated 245 prisoners.
We know that many pose no threat to the United States, if they are guilty of anything at all. We also know that a few are very dangerous and that the illegal and abusive policies of the Bush administration will make it very hard to bring them to full justice. Fixing that part of Mr. Bush’s grotesque legacy will be a lot harder than closing the prison.