Guantánamo is past its due date

The military prison at Guantánamo Bay has been a stain on this nation for more than 14 years. It has violated honorable principles that make the United States special among nations, and has weakened our moral standing in the world. The prison must be closed.

So we applaud President Barack Obama’s renewed call this week to shut down Guantánamo. But his proposal is lamentably short on specifics and a strategy to get it done. More distressing, it would retain the essence of Guantánamo, but stateside. Yes, his plan would continue to reduce the number of enemy combatants being held. But it does not provide a clear way to resolve all of their cases. That would mean some 30 to 60 prisoners would be transferred to prisons in this country, perpetuating the travesty of some people we captured being held indefinitely without trial or right to due process. Some of these detainees were tortured, especially in Guantánamo’s early years, in attempts to get information.

This nation is better than that. We must be better than that.

Opened on a U.S. naval base in Cuba in the angry aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Guantánamo was to be the place where terrorists and Afghan war prisoners could be held, interrogated and prosecuted for war crimes. At one time, it held nearly 800 prisoners. The George W. Bush administration cleared and let go more than 500 of them, and Obama has released another 147 overseas. Of the 91 that remain, 35 are cleared for transfer to other nations and 10 are creeping through the military trial process.

If the remaining 46 combatants have committed crimes, then we are obligated to prove it. Prosecute them, whether in military or civilian courts. If the evidence is sufficient, they will be convicted and sentenced. But if the evidence is lacking to convict or even bring them to trial, they must be released in accordance with the legal principles this nation cherishes. Send them to their home countries or some other country that will accept them. There are serious concerns, no doubt about it. Six released detainees have returned to the battlefield. But that’s reason to tighten vetting procedures and be more aggressive about going to trial, not to indefinitely detain the rest.

Obama’s proposal ran into a buzz saw of Republican opposition on Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail. This once was a bipartisan cause. Bush supported its closure. So has Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former POW. But in November, Congress banned the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to U.S. soil. Obama was careful not to name any particular federal facility as a potential landing spot for the remaining combatants still to be tried, noting only that 13 places had been identified.

Critics say it’s too dangerous to bring Guantánamo’s prisoners to U.S. shores. But the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado, for example, already holds a number of terrorists, foreign and domestic. They include 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Ramzi Yousef; Faisal Shahzad, of the failed 2010 Times Square car bomb; Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in civilian court of the Sept. 11 attacks; and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This can be done.

The United States thinks of itself as a beacon for freedom to the world. Guantánamo makes us hypocrites. Shut it down.

— The editorial board