In our opinion: Fate of the Guantanamo Bay prison needs to be resolved promptly

Published: Monday, July 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 7 2014 11:11 a.m. MDT

Nov. 20, 2013 - The sun rises at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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There are few issues where United States foreign policy confronts America’s constitutional principles more starkly than in regard to the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. With the recent capture of Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a suspect in the 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, some are questioning Guantanamo’s future and whether Khatallah should have been taken there, instead of being tried in a federal district court in Washington.

Whenever possible, this editorial page has argued in favor of trying enemy combatants in civilian courts. Yet there are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding the future of Guantanamo Bay. Some of these issues were exacerbated by the release of five Taliban commanders being held there in exchange for U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Many of the issues surrounding the legal status of the Guantanamo detainees remain unsettled. This uncertainty has thwarted President Obama's efforts to close the facility altogether. Every attempt to transfer Guantanamo's population to a facility on American soil has been met by virulent opposition from those who don't want accused terrorists in their own backyard. In addition, observers recognize that shutting Guantanamo and letting the captives free in the United States simply isn't acceptable. That leaves these detainees in a state of legal limbo that will get even more complicated once the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan altogether in 2015.

The justification for Guantanamo has relied on the authorization for the use of military force passed days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This authorization was used to legitimize holding those captured on the field of battle for the duration of the war. When America no longer has troops in active combat, however, that war must be over. What is the rationale for holding these people?

Some of those accused of terrorism are preparing for their day in court before military tribunals equipped to decide their fate. There are also a number of prisoners who have been determined to no longer pose a threat to national security and may be safely released. It's a relatively simple matter for the government to handle those groups. Yet that still leaves dozens of dangerous captives held on the dubious grounds that they would likely do harm to Americans if released.

Congress should define a specific legal rationale to keep that segment of detainees incarcerated or return them to their country of origin. As the military campaign in Afghanistan winds down, the urgency to find answers to these difficult questions will undoubtedly increase. Lawmakers should actively work with the Obama administration to arrive at solutions before the Afghanistan withdrawal deadline.

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