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Editorial: Guantanamo

Circus justice

Bungling every step of the way in bringing terror suspects to justice, the Bush administration continues to run its Guantanamo Bay prison camp like the proverbial school of hard knocks.

Yet, it has learned little or nothing from the experience.

The lockup on Cuban soil is tough on the detainees, all right. But it's given an even worse beating to America's global prestige, not to mention the rule of law.

A particularly climactic chapter in the misadventures of Guantanamo last week ought to reassure President-elect Barack Obama and his attorney general-designate that their pledge to close the offshore prison is the right way to go.

Not only were top U.S. officials called to task for harsh interrogation techniques employed at Guantanamo, but the high-profile war- crimes trial of five 9/11 plotters was thrown into chaos by the make-it-up-as-you-go court rules in play.

Since the first terror suspects were sent to Guantanamo in 2002, their treatment has been an affront to this nation's concept of fair play under the law. Held without charge for years, many suspects were subjected to abusive interrogations.

On Thursday, a bipartisan Senate report said the abuse of detainees had "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority." It placed the blame directly within the top ranks of the Bush administration, including former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who released the report with Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), decried the fact that U.S. interrogators acted as badly as "our enemies who ignored the Geneva Conventions." Never again, said McCain. Amen. The next White House and Congress must make sure that waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics are relegated to medieval history books.

It's time to learn the lessons taught by Guantanamo. An important one is that it never made sense for President Bush to order a shadow legal system to punish terrorists. After repeated tinkering and rejiggering - often under orders from a critical U.S. Supreme Court - the military tribunal system approved by an overly compliant Congress still has glitches - and always will.

The surprise offer of guilty pleas a week ago from admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators seemed to catch the court off-guard.

The judge, Army Col. Stephen Henley, had to rap his gavel until someone could clarify whether tribunal rules allowed him to find the men guilty. As the trial took on the look of a

Deal or No Deal

episode, more than two-dozen relatives of 9/11 victims issued a joint statement calling the tribunals unfair.

Guilty pleas actually might serve American interests, if they preclude an execution that would put the despicable 9/11 architect in line for martyrdom. Resolving the cases of any 9/11 plotters could make it easier, as well, for an Obama administration to empty Guantanamo, try any remaining charges in federal court or by court-martial, and arrange for low-risk detainees to return to their countries with supervision.