EVER SINCE it was opened on Jan. 11, 2002, the prison at Guantanamo Bay was supposed to be where only "the worst of the worst" of the people captured during the "War on Terror" were to be detained.
At one point, there were 774 "worst of the worst" being held in the compound in Cuba, but right now, there are just 174 detainees left - over the years, the rest have been released. Many had been imprisoned (and some tortured) by mistake.
Apparently, they weren't the "worst of the worst" after all.
In fact, a significant number of the detainees at Guantanamo were turned over to American officials by Pakistani and Afghan bounty hunters who swept up the innocent along with the guilty. Even then, the prisoners might have been sorted out if the U.S. government had been required to follow the Constitution and present actual evidence of wrongdoing.
For years, Guantanamo has undermined national security, serving as a highly effective recruiting poster for al Qaeda and making it difficult for the United States to get international cooperation on terrorism. Not to mention that it runs directly counter to the nation's moral and legal traditions.
If there ever was a change we could believe in, it was candidate Barack Obama's promise to close Guantanamo. Once he took office, President Obama set a deadline for doing it: Jan. 22, 2010. Almost a year ago.
But thanks to a provision included in a defense authorization bill passed by both houses of Congress last week, the al Qaeda recruitment poster will stay just where it is.
Guantanamo is staying open indefinitely since Congress has set new and stricter limits on what the government can do to remove the prisoners.
The provision bans using government money to transfer any prisoners from Guantanamo to the United States, even to put them on trial. It also blocks an Obama administration proposal to acquire a high-security prison in Illinois in which it planned to hold several dozen detainees.
Guantanamo is a prime example of an alarming reality. Our Constitution is a sacred document . . . as long as it's convenient. And its guarantee of due process is proving very troublesome.
Even though President Obama insists he still wants to close Guantanamo, he reportedly will soon sign an executive order that will allow 48 detainees to continue to be imprisoned indefinitely - although the process will be more "humane" than it has been - and less draconian than it would be if Congress set the policy.
The 48 prisoners apparently can't be tried in civil courts - or even military tribunals - because the evidence against them is so tainted (likely by torture) that it is inadmissible.
So, since the government doesn't think it can get a conviction, it will ignore the Constitution and just keep the prisoners locked up. But not to worry, believers in due process: the detainees will have lawyers to represent them to a kind of "parole board" that will make its decision not on issues of law, but based on whether it's "safe" to deport a prisoner to another country.
FOR YEARS, many Republicans and Democrats alike have shuddered in fear that these alleged bad guys would be locked up in maximum security prisons on U.S. soil.
We have much more to fear from a new generation of terrorists enraged by the propaganda that Guantanamo engenders. And we should be downright terrified at the damage that will be done to our democracy if indefinite detention is allowed to become the new normal.
That would be the worst of the worst.