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Opinion: Guantanamo is a problem we can solve

Disengagement programs should ideally replace a detainee’s social network.

Hooded protesters dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees demonstrate in front of the White House in Washington, Jan. 11, 2010. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Today is President Obama’s self-imposed deadline for closing the United States military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. After the events of the past year — including, most recently, the failed airliner bombing over Detroit on Christmas Day — and ongoing problems finding countries able and willing to accept detainees, the administration concedes it will not meet the President’s target.

The goal of closing Guantanamo in a year was encouraging, but unrealistic. It’s not simply a matter of what to do with the detainees at Guantanamo, or “Gitmo North,” if any of its inmates ever end up being transferred to the Thompson correctional facility in Illinois.

The United States’ entire detainee policy is at issue, in Guantanamo, Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Iraq, and anywhere else the U.S. or its allies hold people without trial.

Today, there are about 200 prisoners at Guantanamo, most of whom are from Yemen. Moving them to Illinois doesn’t solve the problem, it just relocates it. At the most fundamental level, Obama still hasn’t decided what he wants to do.

The administration has prisoners it intends to place on trial, either in open courts or military tribunals. These include some of the 15 high-value detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. At the other end, the White House had cleared between 40 and 45 Yemeni detainees for release, but as yet, has no idea what to do with them.

In between, it gets even messier, with a group of detainees the administration doesn’t want to try but doesn’t want to let go, either. The administration will do everything in its power to make that group as small as possible, but it won’t be easy, and the last four weeks haven’t helped.

President Obama has never adequately explained his position, that this is a matter of managing risk in a manner that comports with both our security and our values.

It would be politically suicidal for Obama to release any detainee who might return to violent activities, yet every day in the U.S., we tolerate a substantial risk of recidivism among paroled rapists and murderers, and we manage it. It’s equally absurd to presume that we can keep prisoners who have never been convicted of crimes in custody forever, or let them out and expect that they’ll never do anything bad.