It took years of wrangling, negotiation, rebuffs and reconsiderations, majority and minority opinions, and general bad feelings. But at last Congress, the courts and the chief executive had come up with a way to redesign the traditional military commissions to deal with the challenge presented by illegal combatants in this new, asymmetrical war on and with terror.
Now, on his first day in the Oval Office, with a stroke of the pen on an executive order, a new president and commander-in-chief has made it clear what he thinks should be done about that whole, long laborious process: Forget it.
The military commissions now have been canceled, or at least suspended. The detention center at Guantanamo will be shut down by presidential order. How simple it all turned out to be.
Too simple. Just closing Guantanamo was always the easy part. That was the goal of the previous administration, too, which sought to achieve it over the years by releasing, relocating, repatriating and generally diminishing the number of prisoners held there -- despite the objections of those crying Rendition!
The now former administration continued to move prisoners out of Gitmo even as some of those released have had to be recaptured on the battlefield or have been caught in new terror plots. See the curious case of Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi freed from Guantanamo only to emerge as deputy leader of al-Qaida in Yemen. He's now a suspect in the deadly bombing of the U.S. Embassy there.
By now Guantanamo's prison population has been reduced from 775 to 245. But those detainees who remain include the hardest cases. And governments in their home countries may be too savvy to accept many of them.
How to deal with the ringleaders who freely admit their guilt, and even insist on "martyrdom," at least in their public statements and pleadings? What's to be done with them when there is no offshore prison in which to house them?
Shall the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds be turned over to ordinary criminal courts in this country, with all rights and privileges appertaining thereto, and the government proceed to stage a whole new series of circus trials like that of Zacarias Moussaoui over the next couple of years or decades? Or shall it seek willing executioners abroad? Or just forget the whole thing and hope for the best? Once Guantanamo is shuttered, what's the country to do about these clear and present dangers?