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In our opinion: Flip-flop on Guantanamo

Published: Friday, March 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

One of Barack Obama's first acts as president was to impose a moratorium on military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay and to call for the closure of that prison. This week he once again proved that leaders don't always have the luxury of sticking to partisan slogans when faced with practical, and political, realities.

Obama's anti-Guantanamo position was a political winner in 2008, as many Americans came to associate it with violations of basic rights to a speedy trial and against cruel and unusual punishment. Actually waging a war on terror as commander in chief, however, apparently leads one to think more clearly on matters involving the detention of enemy combatants; that and the political reality that no member of Congress wanted the detainees shipped to a prison in his or her district.

President George W. Bush and members of his administration made the case that Guantanmo detainees should not be treated as prisoners of war, which would have invoked rules under the Geneva Conventions. This, they argued, was because the war on terror is not a traditional conflict. The "soldiers" fighting against the United States and its allies are not subjects of a sovereign government that could call them off in the event of a peace agreement. Each of them represents his own unique degree of threat to U.S. national security.

And while this page has argued in favor of trying these combatants in civilian courts whenever possible, it is also true that many of them were captured without preserving the type of physical evidence that would be necessary for a conviction in a civilian court. Obama seems to understand that, which is why he lifted the moratorium on trying these combatants in military tribunals.

The war on terror has forced the United States to confront the age-old pendulum between freedom and security in unprecedented ways. For average Americans, a trip on a commercial airline makes this clear, as the battleground over protections against unreasonable search of seizure has shifted to airport security. For the government, the pendulum is swinging over the rights of people who essentially are part of a large network of criminals dedicated to widespread destruction of the nation's way of life.

These are not easy issues. Perhaps no single prisoner embodies this struggle better than Jose Padilla. An American citizen, he was arrested on suspicion of plotting a radioactive bomb attack in the United States and initially was classified as an enemy combatant. Despite his citizenship, he was denied basic constitutional rights. Later, however, his case was moved to a civilian court, where he was tried and convicted of charges related to terrorism and sentenced to 17 years and four months in prison.

Reversing a campaign promise is no small feat. We are glad to see the president is taking seriously the struggle over national security in an age of terrorism. He has added an emphasis on due process rights and appears committed to periodic reviews of Guantanamo detainees — an important step considering some have been found through the years to be of little real threat to the United States.

His commitment to an overall focus on national security is reassuring.

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