Editor's Note: This post originated on our sister publication TimesWatch.org.New York Times terror-trial reporter William Glaberson filed a "news analysis" Sunday on the war crimes conviction of Salim Hamdan, the Guantanamo Bay detainee recently convicted of providing material support to terror by serving as driver and bodyguard to Osama bin Laden. But "A Conviction, but a System Still on Trial -- Questions Persist: Is Guantanamo Tribunal Fair and Open Enough?" downplayed the significance of Hamdan's conviction and provided a flattering personality sketch, painting Hamdan as harmless and the government overzealous in its prosecution.
The verdict in the first war crimes trial at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is in: One poorly educated Yemeni, with an impish sense of humor and two little girls, is guilty of supporting terrorism by driving Osama bin Laden. With credit for time served, the sentence is no more than five months.
But the other, perhaps more important verdict -- the judgment on the Bush administration's military commission system -- is still out.
With the decision from a panel of military officers last week, the Pentagon accomplished what once seemed nearly impossible. It completed a trial in a system that has faced a series of challenges since its birth in the unsettled months after the 2001 attacks.
The verdict and the five-and-a-half-year sentence may not have been as severe as the government had hoped for, but it was a green light for a tribunal that the Pentagon plans to use to prosecute as many as 80 detainees, including five men charged as the plotters and coordinators of the Sept. 11 attack. Nonetheless, the central question about the war crimes system remains unanswered after its first trial: Is it fair enough and open enough to meet Americans' concept of justice?
Glaberson painted the conviction as a hollow victory for the government and suggested it had misled the public into thinking that Hamdan was getting a fair trial:
The prosecutors had a victory that had the trappings of defeat, as Mr. Hamdan was acquitted on a conspiracy charge. They acknowledged disappointment. But they kept repeating that they had, after all, won.
Another military mantra is that the tribunal is open and transparent. But no one can go to this remote naval station to attend the sessions without military orders. At the tribunal itself, where many seats are empty, journalists are accompanied at all times by military escorts, who stand guard even outside the latrine.
So it was in keeping with the contradictions of Guantánamo that the Hamdan trial in many ways looked like an American trial and in many ways did not.