Washington Post Editorial
January 25, 2002

The Guantanamo Story

THE BUSH administration has been forced to spend the past several days fending off a wave of international outrage and diplomatic protests about its treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba. America-bashers in the European press and human rights community, whose objections to the Afghan military campaign were cut short by the swift U.S. victory, have had a field day trumpeting allegations of "torture," even as their governments summon U.S. ambassadors to deliver lectures about respect for the Geneva Convention. An indignant Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spent an hour on television refuting "the questions, allegations and breathless reports," which he attributed to "people who are either uninformed, misinformed or poorly informed." That may be true; there is no evidence that the Guantanamo prisoners have been treated inhumanely. But if Guantanamo has been a public relations -- as opposed to human rights -- debacle, then the Bush administration has only itself to blame.

Mr. Rumsfeld has been toasted around Washington for his public reports on the war, but his handling of the prisoner issue has done much to ignite the international controversy. The globally broadcast misinformation about which he complains stems largely from his own policy of strictly limiting media access to Guantanamo while offering accounts of U.S. handling of the prisoners that have been by turns vague, flippant or simply wrong. Mr. Rumsfeld improperly labeled all the prisoners as "unlawful combatants" and said, incorrectly, that they were not covered by the Geneva Convention. He refused to provide a list of the prisoners or the countries they are from, and several times suggested that he was unconcerned about their treatment, which he said was better than what they had dealt out in Afghanistan. Much of what he said suggested that the Bush administration would respect international law only so far as it chose to. In that context, it's not surprising that America's critics read brutalities into the sketchy media pool reports and photos coming from Cuba.

In appearances this week Mr. Rumsfeld and other administration officials have offered some reassuring clarifications. The defense secretary now says that "all detainees" are being treated "consistently with the principles of the Geneva Convention." He acknowledged that the detainees cannot be designated as unlawful combatants -- as opposed to prisoners of war -- without a legal process, and must be released if they are not charged with crimes. He indicated that some could be tried by criminal courts or courts-martial, some released to their home countries, and some sent before military tribunals; under the Geneva Convention, the latter procedure would be legitimate for those legally designated as unlawful combatants. Mr. Rumsfeld also said the Pentagon was studying the "right way" to release information about the identities of the prisoners.

The administration has now suspended the transfer of additional groups of prisoners to Guantanamo, saying it wants to interview the ones it has. That seems a wise course; meanwhile, construction of more sturdy and permanent housing for detainees should be speeded, and more outside observers given a closer look at the facilities that now exist. Most important, the administration should make clear that it will fully respect the Geneva Convention in its handling of all detainees. Doing so would not hamper its ability to prosecute al Qaeda and Taliban members for the crimes they have committed, and might not require any significant change in the treatment of the prisoners. It will, however, make clear that the United States upholds international human rights law -- and it would at least weaken the unnecessary international tempest that has raged over Guantanamo this week.

Copyright 2002, Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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