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Guest editorial: President must act on Gitmo prison

5:15 PM, May 6, 2013  |  Comments
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If the nation has learned anything from a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's that wars are far easier to get into than out of. The lesson is the same with suspected terrorists. Locking them up is much simpler than letting them go - or hanging onto them.

Detainees have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002, and the government is still struggling with what to do with them. Lately, a hunger strike involving about 100 inmates has made the problem even more acute.

President Obama promised at his news conference last week to do something about Gitmo, but exactly what was unclear. Though he pledged during his 2008 campaign to close the prison - which he rightly described as stain on America's reputation and a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda - Obama folded after Congress blocked his efforts to shut it down.

Some progress has been made. The detainee population is down to 166 from a peak of nearly 800.

Of the prisoners who remain, 46 are deemed too dangerous to let go but impossible to prosecute, even under the looser standards of military commissions, for lack of evidence or because evidence is compromised by torture.

If released or repatriated, there's a high probability they'd resume jihad. What to do with this group is a question with no satisfactory answer. They have to be held.

But both Obama and Congress could do more to winnow the rest, including 86 prisoners cleared for transfer three years ago who remain incarcerated.

If Obama is still serious about closing Guantanamo, there are obvious steps he can take, many without congressional assent.

The administration once had top officials at the White House and the State Department to oversee Guantanamo affairs; replacements should be appointed to restore focus to the administration's Guantanamo efforts and intensify negotiations with countries that might accept prisoners.

Obama should press the Pentagon to exploit new, more flexible rules Congress wrote for allowing prisoner transfers. And the president should reconsider his ban on sending prisoners back to Yemen, first working with the new government there to ensure those who return from Guantanamo could be secured.

Congress, meanwhile, could revisit the idea of transferring Guantanamo prisoners to a secure, "supermax" facility in the United States. U.S. prisons already hold many convicted terrorists who are the equal of those at Guantanamo.

As for the hunger strike, the Obama administration's awkward-but-necessary decision to force-feed 23 frail inmates is the best of bad options. Some medical ethicists squawk at the intervention, but suicide prevention is a basic part of a jailer's responsibilities.

Keeping the prisoners alive is the humane thing to do and the way to deny them a propaganda windfall.

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