Behind Bush's Guantanamo Move

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A guard at Camp Delta 4, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba, in June.

President Bush's announcement that 13 top al-Qaeda suspects are to be moved to Guantanamo Bay to face military tribunals, and his call for Congress to prioritize legislation to beef up the legal foundation of those tribunals, is aimed at bolstering the legal basis of U.S. detainee policy. But the President's timing — some two years after the Supreme Court first challenged the legal basis for the practices at Guantanamo, and on the eve of an election season in which his own party is expected to suffer losses at the polls, partly because of the situation in Iraq — will be widely viewed as politically motivated.

The President's speech, filled with graphic details of terror plots, is clearly part of the ongoing White House campaign to shift the terms of the political debate over national security issues. As the Democrats are pointing to U.S. difficulties in Iraq and demanding the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the White House has begun to reemphasize the continuing terror threat to America — an issue that has tended to favor Republicans. The question of what legal rights Congress should legislate for detained terror suspects is also highly contentious, and putting it on the legislative agenda less than a month before the pre-election recess is clearly an attempt to frame the national conversation on terms least favorable to the Democrats.

The question of timing aside, the President's announcement addresses the problem of finding legal and political justification for the Guantanamo operation itself, in the face of challenges from the U.S. Supreme Court as well as some of America's closest allies. The legal case for holding most of the more than 400 detainees currently at the facility has been called into question, since only a handful have been slated for trial by military tribunal and there are doubts concerning the culpability of many of the others. And given their more than four years in detention, any intelligence value current Guantanamo prisoners may still have is in question.

By transferring name-brand al-Qaeda prisoners recognized as dangerous men — such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad — to Guantanamo from secret detention abroad is likely to strengthen the rationale for the offshore facility, and for dispensing justice via military courts. It is also precisely because the Supreme Court has ruled that military tribunals do not offer detainees sufficient legal rights that the President has now urged Congress to pass legislation to address those concerns.

But the detainee transfers and the legislative intervention sought by President Bush are unlikely to end the legal and political controversy over Guantanamo. They may, however, strengthen the case for a policy of holding detainees offshore and trying them in military courts. And by making the announcement in the form of a dramatic break into national television schedules before a handpicked audience that included some families of 9/11 victims, it also aimed to position t he President and his Administration in the minds of swing voters as the guardians of the nation's security in the face of a clear and present danger.