Transparency needed at Camp X-Ray

The capture of hundreds of al-Qaida members from Afghanistan presents President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft with a difficult decision. As international inspectors examine Camp X-Ray for human rights violations, the U.S. government has been careful not to refer to the detainees as prisoners of war. Doing this would give these detainees rights under international law – something they lack at the moment. Because the government has yet to decide how to handle these detainees, they sit in cells in Cuba.

The government is responding to a public demanding the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks be brought to justice. But identifying who among the detainees are responsible for those attacks will prove difficult.

Indications from the Justice Department’s handling of American John Walker Lindh – who joined the Taliban to help battle the northern alliance – suggest that only those who can be shown to have played a role in planning or executing the terrorist attacks will be subject to the criminal penalties for those attacks. The administration should be commended for this decision. Rather than bowing to a populace demanding vengeance, the government must pursue justice.

The public might disagree with the Taliban’s beliefs, but participating in an unpopular government does not constitute a grave crime against the United States. Thus far there is no evidence to indicate Walker Lindh did more than support and fight with Taliban soldiers.

The U.S. government must now develop a method to ascertain who among the detainees played a role in the terrorist attacks. Guilt by association is not enough. Determining which members of al-Qaida orchestrated and helped execute the terrorist attacks will prove difficult. But doing this publicly will demonstrate that the United States has not sacrificed the principles on which it was founded.

Walker will be publicly tried in a U.S. criminal court. So must every al-Qaida member believed to have contributed to terrorism. Doing this will add legitimacy to any convictions, legitimacy both before U.S. citizens and before the international community that is rightly scrutinizing this process.

Establishing a secret military tribunal was a mistake, and selectively using it will only compound that mistake.

The U.S. government has established a precedent by choosing to try Walker Lindh in criminal court. It must now follow that precedent by trying each al-Qaida member in the same fashion.