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Guantanamo cases embarrassing Holding prisoners for four years without charges is undemocratic

Documents released by the Pentagon in response to an Associated Press freedom of information lawsuit name some detainees at Guantanamo Bay, but add little to their stories.

And without more than just names scattered throughout 5,000 pages of hearing testimony records, a stain grows on America's reputation. This is the nation that seeks to spread democracy? There are about 500 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and nothing in this flurry of pages offers proof that they are -- or aren't -- held for legitimate reasons.

The testimony involves dialogue between prisoners -- usually identified only as "the detainee," although names sometimes surface in the conversation -- and the three-officer panel trying to determine whether or not they are "enemy combatants" who can be held indefinitely without charges. Protestations of innocence are the norm, but without access to classified intelligence, fair evaluation is impossible.

Instead, what emerges is an occasional glimpse of life in the detention center, or an allegation of abuse, or a look at the difficulties of offering any defense while locked away in isolation. The Pentagon has said its refusal to provide names is for the detainees' own good, and for the security of their families; lawyers for some of the detainees simply hope for a shred of information on which to base a case for release.

None of this plays well in the wider world, nor should it. America cannot simply assert a right to indefinite incarceration without charges, because Americans are the good guys, without inviting the same from tyrants the world over.

Nor can it so glaringly suspend the law, even in the name of a vague war on terrorism, while trying to spread the rule of law and democracy worldwide. America has a right to defense, and in a war against a murky enemy, that includes broader rights of detention and interrogation. But the bottom line is that four years of incarceration and interrogation ought to be enough to separate the chaff from the wheat. Charge the militants and send the chicken farmers home -- or say why, after four years of trying, we can't tell the difference.