Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Monday, 11 February 2008

9/11 charges mark major milestone

By Richard Lister
BBC News, Washington

The announcement that six of those held at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre are being charged in connection with the 11 September 2001 attacks is, as Brig Gen Thomas Hartmann put it, "a significant legal milestone" in the history of operations at Guantanamo.

Razor wire and US flag at Guantanamo Bay detention camp
Opposition to Guantanamo Bay has led to a gradual shift in US policy

What he didn't say is that it is a significant political milestone too.

For years now the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay has been the unloved, thuggish cousin in the so-called War on Terror.

In the Bush administration's view, it has done an essential job of keeping militants it regards as "the worst of the worst" out of America's way.

But, over time, the image of hundreds of foreign nationals held without charge or trial in a military base where they are denied even the legal protection of prisoners of war has come to undercut the administration's proclamation to be in a battle for liberty, democracy and freedom around the world.

No-one in the administration now holds up Guantanamo as a poster boy for anti-terror policy in the future.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The weight of opposition to the prison - international and home-grown - has led to a gradual, quiet shift in American policy.

Raging giant

Now the plan is to close it, once it has been decided what will happen to the remaining 275 or so occupants.

Walid Bin Attash
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Walid Bin Attash (above)
Ramzi Binalshibh
Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali
Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi
Mohammed al-Qahtani

How different from the furious aftermath of 9/11, when America, like a wounded raging giant, blustered about Guantanamo being a just response to an unjust war.

It brought the first prisoners over to Guantanamo with some fanfare, issuing official photos and inviting journalists to come and see the camp for themselves.

I was one of those early visitors and what struck me in February 2002 was the feeling among those I spoke to at the base that revenge was sweet; that those who had dared attack America were getting what they deserved.

We were encouraged to show the world what life at Camp X-Ray (as it was then) was like.

Our camera crews could film fairly close to the chain link fencing that comprised the walls of Camp X-Ray's cells.

There were few restrictions on filming the orange-clad prisoners sullenly moving about inside as the hot Caribbean winds blew through their cages.

International outcry

The camp administrators liked the message that this was a harsh environment for America's enemies to end up in.

Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay - defence department handout photo, Jan 2002
Early images of prisoners in orange jumpsuits prompted wide outcry

They approved photos of hooded prisoners kneeling in the sun in their orange jumpsuits as they were processed on arrival from Afghanistan.

I remember a real sense of puzzlement among guards and officials as international outcry grew about those images.

Those so recently scarred by 9/11 seemed unable to understand why the rest of the world did not also feel that there was a licence to treat "America's enemies" in this way.

There was a sense of pride among the Guantanamo guards about their mission - as there still is, but these days few others are willing to share that pride - publicly at least.

Too much has changed, and that sense of deep, bitter anger at the events of 9/11 is less raw than it was.

Guantanamo's defenders

In its place have come questions about whether the benefits of keeping the prison in Guantanamo Bay are worth the damage it does to America's international reputation.

A detainee and guard at Guantanamo Bay, Oct 2007
Many detainees have been held at Guantanamo Bay for years

There may now be a new answer to that question, in the form of the charges announced at the Pentagon.

Those who have defended the prison in the past can now point to these indictments and say that but for the Guantanamo Bay prison, it is possible these individuals would never have been brought to justice.

It has taken years for the military prosecutors to gather the evidence for these charges - years in which the authorities would possibly have been unable to detain and interrogate the defendants without recourse to the legal no-man's-land of Guantanamo.

It does not silence the debate of course, but it will add to it.

Bush's legacy

The trial could be one of the few tangible results of Guantanamo's existence, and tangible results are always more effective debating points than the intangible results the administration has pointed to up until now - the potential attacks which may have been averted by keeping their potential perpetrators locked up.

For those who have always backed the Guantanamo route, this is a chance to help the thuggish cousin leave the international stage with a bang, not a whimper

For President George W Bush, it also raises the prospect of the trial of some of the key architects of 9/11 in his final year in office.

That will silence some of the grumbling about his failure to catch Bin Laden and - in an election year - weaken some of the criticism of his War on Terror.

Mr Bush's presidency may yet be book-ended by 9/11. It set the course for his period in office, and a trial of some of those behind it would, for him, be a good note on which to leave the White House.

A legal labyrinth lies ahead for the military prosecutors, which could see the trial process dead-ended in any number of ways.

But for those who have always backed the Guantanamo route, this is a chance to help the thuggish cousin leave the international stage with a bang, not a whimper.

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Pentagon briefing on charges linked to 9/11 attacks


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