WASHINGTON — Unhappy anniversary to you, Gitmo.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 captives in the “war on terror” were flown from Afghanistan to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At the time, the flight seemed a necessary byproduct of military action to topple the Taliban and detain prisoners of war who may have been complicit in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or other plots.

Now the compound is America’s shame.

Like the Iraq war, it is a totem to the Bush administration’s blinkered belief in its own righteousness, and an enduring marker for the president’s uninhibited shredding of the laws that the United States and the rest of the civilized world long ago agreed to live by. It is, as well, a monument to President Bush’s undisguised disdain for the facts.

In the beginning, we were told that those rounded up and shipped to Guantanamo from all corners of the world — they were not just taken from the “battlefield” in Afghanistan, but also from other countries far from the fighting — were the “worst of the worst.” Within days of that first flight, Vice President Dick Cheney described the detainees as “the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans.” Bush himself would later claim: “They were there to kill.”

Now we know the military itself determined that more than half the so-called enemy combatants at Guantanamo committed no hostile act against the United States. Only 7 percent of detainees actually were picked up by U.S. or coalition forces, according to a review of official documents by Seton Hall University Law School. The rest were rounded up by Pakistani authorities, various local militias and armed groups — and by bounty hunters who sold them for handsome sums.

Despite two Supreme Court rulings to the contrary, the government’s official policy remains that the detainees have no right to contest their confinement or even to see evidence that is the supposed basis for their indefinite incarceration.

In practice, the military’s policy is to release as many detainees to their home countries as possible. The Pentagon says 380 detainees have been released since 2002.

But this endeavor, too, has laid bare the deception at the core of the screeching propaganda that still seeks to depict everyone who ever was brought to Guantanamo — about 395 remain — as determined terrorists. In releasing three men to Albania in November, for example, the Defense Department said it hoped they would be resettled “in an environment that will permit them to rebuild their lives.”

In fact, most of those who’ve been released have been found by their home countries to pose no threat at all. An Associated Press investigation into the fate of 245 released men showed that 205 were either freed without charge or cleared after investigations into the allegations that had landed them at Guantanamo. Afghanistan freed all 83 of its repatriated citizens, saying they were innocent. Most had been rounded up because of tribal or personal rivalries. A Pakistani official told the AP that his government believes most imprisoned Pakistanis had wound up at Guantanamo after being sold to U.S. forces by Afghan warlords.

“It’s hard to believe that the government would release terrorists,” says Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who has handled the cases of six Bahraini men — four of whom have returned home and been quickly released — on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It is also hard to believe that a hardened terrorist was somehow rehabilitated at Guantanamo.”

The Bahraini government, Colangelo-Bryan says, promised to try the men if the United States would send any evidence upon which to base a prosecution. None was offered, and no charges were brought.

As it has been in Iraq, so it has been at Guantanamo. Almost everything our government has told us about the prison has proved untrue. Yet the Bush administration clings to its own fallacies. It is unable to break free from them because to do so would be to admit the historic horror of its error.

But the errors of the president are those of the United States. You cannot separate the two. Most of the world sees Guantanamo as Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner describes it — “an offshore penal colony in which people have no rights.”

Bush fully intends to pass the fate of Guantanamo and those still in its bleak cells to his successor. This moral encumbrance is now part of America’s legacy, too.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is [email protected].

Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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