THE PUBLICATION this week of more than 700 files on detainees at the Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba confirms, in spades, what was already known about the inconsistent treatment of terrorism suspects. Many innocent people were held and interrogated. But among those who were sent back to their home countries, a certain number — somewhere between 6 and 13 percent of the 600 or so released — took up their jihadist ways again. In other words, the documents show how a badly improvised system of incarceration, interrogation, and prosecution failed to further US objectives even as it violated the Constitution.
This latest batch of WikiLeaks files underlines the conflicts and poor coordination between the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies questioning Guantanamo prisoners. Many suspects classified as high-risk were nevertheless released — among them a group of Saudis who were placed in a rehabilitation program that offers corrective religious instruction, housing, a job, and a wife. In a handful of cases the reprogramming did not take, and former detainees joined Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
The assessments cover the period from 2002 to early 2009, when senior officials in the Bush administration were arguing among themselves about the legality of certain harsh interrogation techniques including waterboarding. Beyond the human rights considerations that should have settled the argument about torture, the files demonstrate how one prisoner’s accusations against another would become suspect — and legally useless — because they were obtained under torture.
President Obama must now confront the vexing problem of what to do with the 172 inmates out of a total of 779 who remain there. At a time when Obama is trying, wisely, to place the United States on the side of the freedom movement coursing through the Arab world, it is more important than ever to erase the stain of Guantanamo.
All those who can be tried should be tried — in civilian courts where possible and in military courts where necessary. All the rest should be deported to their countries of origin or another country that will take them. As the documents make clear, it’s impossible to be sure that none will again take up with terrorists, but the larger benefits of closing Guantanamo will be felt across the world.