President Obama is learning it is a lot easier to reverse unpopular positions of his predecessor than it is to come up with better ones of his own. On Thursday, he signed executive orders aimed at shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which houses some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. His orders also restricted interrogation methods that can be used by the CIA to elicit information from suspects and eliminated secret overseas detention facilities run by the CIA. Earlier, he suspended military commission hearings that were established to hear cases against those held at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
Now he has to decide what to do with the 245 men held at Guantanamo. And, if he is lucky enough to see Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri captured on his watch, he'll have to decide what to do with them. Ensure they're read their Miranda rights and appointed taxpayer-funded legal counsel, perhaps?
It's no joke. The philosophical shift between treating accused terrorists captured on foreign soil as enemy combatants or simply heinous criminals is an important distinction. The Clinton administration dealt with those responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 as the latter. (In fairness, no one knew at the time that the perpetrators were involved in more than a criminal conspiracy.) But Mohammed Atta and his 18 fellow soldiers made sure we understood on Sept. 11, 2001, that their attacks were acts of war against the United States.
It is tempting to believe that the worst is over -- that we won't be hit again, maybe even harder than we were just eight years ago. Some Democrats are sure that nothing George W. Bush did made us safer, and many of them would argue Bush sacrificed important constitutional guarantees without gaining any measure of security. But I think it is highly implausible that pure luck has protected us. Waterboarding may be nasty business, but if the technique indeed forced KSM to reveal details in 2003 of planned attacks and thus saved lives -- as Bush officials have asserted -- is it responsible to say that there are no circumstances, ever, in which it might be used again? And would the Obama administration go further, as Attorney General nominee Eric Holder hinted in his confirmation hearings, and seek to prosecute those who ordered or carried out waterboarding?
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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