President Barack Obama announced Monday his decision to abandon for the moment, perhaps for good, his pledge to voters in the 2008 elections to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He had said he would do it within a year from his inauguration. He has apparently decided instead to provide the some 172 detainees still there military trials. The emotions felt by those who factored Mr. Obama's pledge about Guantanamo into their decision to vote for him, believing that he would see treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners brought into line with American standards of justice, must be sadness and disillusionment.
Mr. Obama apparently gave up, believing that he could not persuade Congress to agree either to trials in civilian courts or to imprisonment in America. It is easy to see how he could have reached that conclusion and decided to make the best of a situation that is discouraging, in terms of Americans' perception of U.S. justice, and of how it is seen by the rest of the world.
Although circumstances, numbers and other factual aspects of what takes place at Guantanamo under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy has always been strictly rationed to the media and the American public, it appears that of the hundreds who were imprisoned there, the Bush administration released some 500, the Obama government relinquished 70, and 172 remain.
The problems with Guantanamo are manifold. First, counter to the American constitutional provision guaranteeing due process of law, the Guantanamo prisoners, some held for nearly 10 years, have never been charged or put on trial. Instead, they have been imprisoned under difficult conditions in a prison on the far southeast corner of Cuba.
Second, their status has never been clear. Although government lawyers have maintained that they did not have the right to the treatment normally accorded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, it is hard to see why not. Both the Taliban and al-Qaida are certainly organized bodies, even if they are not governments, and the Geneva Conventions do not limit the designation of prisoner of war to combatants for governments, a principle established during the Vietnam War.
The other objection to trying the Guantanamo prisoners in military courts is that the practice raises the question of to what degree military justice is justice. There is also the thought that Mr. Obama prefers military courts to keep the question of torture of prisoners out of more open civilian courts.
In any case, the one positive element in Mr. Obama's decision is that the train of justice -- of whatever quality -- is now moving for some of the Guantanamo prisoners.