The gordian knot of Guantanamo Bay

The Democrats’ Senate leader, Harry Reid, explained that he did not want terrorists released in the US. “No one’s talking about releasing them,” said an incredulous reporter. “We’re talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States.” Mr Reid replied laconically: “Can’t put them in prison unless you release them.”

Bloggers snorted at the stupidity and cravenness of this remark and, in his speech, Mr Obama repeated the bloggers’ red herring that “nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons”. But Mr Reid is right. Bringing Guantánamo prisoners to the US is safe only if you assume they will not receive a fair trial. In a system that guarantees due process, if you cannot charge a person or if a judge finds his interrogation unconstitutional, you release him. Mr Obama’s constitutionalism is underwritten by the Bush war on terror.

That is why Mr Cheney’s big push has been successful. It confronts Mr Obama with a Gordian knot that he dare not cut. A constitution that enshrines rights is an asset, but it does not come free. If it did, every country would have one. Eight years ago, Americans reckoned that some rights were worth trading for security. If they want those rights back, they will probably have to trade some security. That is the bargain. Until Mr Obama admits it he will be tangled up in an illogic from which no oratory can extract him.