OBAMA KEEPS TRIBUNALS, DRAWS IRE
By Joseph Williams
** Reversal angers some backers **
May 16, 2009
[PHOTO CAPTION: Guards at the Guantanamo detention facility searched detainees (in white) this week. The Obama administration is restarting military tribunals for a small number of detainees.]
WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to overhaul and restart the Bush administration's military tribunals for Guantanamo Bay terrorism detainees won support from congressional Republicans yesterday, but deepened his estrangement from the liberal activists who helped sweep him into office.
In a statement yesterday, Obama said he was reviving the tribunals for a small number of the 241 Guantanamo inmates because the commissions "are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered."
The White House asserted that Obama was not embracing the Bush system because he was adding significant legal protections for detainees, such as not allowing statements obtained through waterboarding and other extreme interrogation tactics. Like Bush, Obama is trying to walk a fine line between adhering to the rule of law and ensuring that dangerous, avowed enemies of the United States remain behind bars.
"This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values," said Obama, a former constitutional law professor.
But civil liberties groups, among his staunchest allies on the political left, vowed to fight the move and lashed out at the president, accusing him of turning his back on his own ideals and reneging on another campaign promise. They also questioned whether, after just four months in office, Obama is caving in to Republicans who have openly challenged him on the issue of national security.
"It's disturbing," said Tom Andrews of Win Without War, a coalition of groups opposed to the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. "It's not just one episode, it's a clear trend that's emerging."
Andrews said he and other liberal activists are dismayed and angered by Obama's reluctance to investigate what they consider the use of torture during interrogations of detainees, his decision to retain the power to place terrorist suspects in secret overseas prisons, and his reversal earlier this week in which he announced he would fight the release of a new batch of photos showing U.S. personnel abusing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Now, he's going to revive a [tribunal] system that has no credibility at all in the world," said Andrews, a former member of Congress.
Obama said Pentagon lawyers were filing paperwork asking for a 120-day delay in the trials, allowing enough time to enact at least the initial rule changes on what kind of evidence can be presented, and to determine which changes need congressional approval.
The delay means the trials of 13 defendants, including five charged with helping orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be restarted no sooner than September. The rest of the 241 Guantanamo detainees will either be released, transferred to other countries, tried in U.S. civilian courts or, potentially, held indefinitely as prisoners of war.
A Guantanamo inmate, who helped establish detainees' rights to challenge their detention in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, was freed and arrived yesterday in France, which agreed to take him in a gesture to the Obama administration, the Associated Press reported. Lakhdar Boumediene, suspected in a bomb plot against the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo, was arrested along with five other Algerians in 2001 in Bosnia, but was later cleared of any terrorist activity and is expected to live with family.
Though it was a major policy decision, Obama did not announce it in person. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president will give a speech about the tribunals and other related issues on Thursday.
Gibbs told reporters yesterday that the tribunals will ensure "certain justice" for the detainees as well as "live up to our values." Asked about alienating the administration's core supporters, he said that national security was "first and foremost" on Obama's mind.
As civil liberties groups blasted Obama for the decision to build on what they called Bush's flawed, hastily constructed system, Republicans praised him for recognizing reality, saying that becoming commander in chief has forced Obama to set aside campaign positions.
"I continue to believe it is in our own national security interests to separate ourselves from the past problems of Guantanamo," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, a lawyer in the Air Force reserves, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I agree with the president and our military commanders that now is the time to start over and strengthen our detention policies."
One top Democrat, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also supported Obama.
"I objected to the military commissions that were created by the Bush-Cheney administration because they stripped away critical protections in our laws," Leahy said in a statement yesterday. "People in American custody must be treated fairly, humanely, and in accordance with our laws. I look forward to reviewing the Obama administration's proposals for providing a fair system of military commissions."
The tribunal system was designed to deal with enemy combatants captured by the U.S. military on the battlefields of Afghanistan starting in late 2001. But human rights and legal organizations repeatedly challenged the system because it denied defendants most of the basic rights they would have been granted in a civilian courtroom or a traditional military court-martial.
Civil libertarians have argued that the detainees' cases belong in U.S. federal court, where the government has won dozens of cases against suspected terrorists -- including Zacharias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker," now serving a life sentence in prison.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, said yesterday that Obama's decision to revive the military tribunals completes "a perfect mosaic of hypocrisy" that began with his decision to accept the Bush administration's position on a lawsuit filed by five men who claim they were kidnapped and tortured by the CIA. Obama's lawyers are seeking to dismiss the suit, arguing that it would reveal government secrets and threaten national security.
"The Obama administration is morphing into the Bush administration on these important issues," Turley said.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said his agency intends to fight the decision in court, which could take years. "Ultimately, this is very likely to be found to be another illegal scheme," he said.
Andrews said he believes Obama's decision is an overreaction to Republican criticism that Democrats' antiterror policies would bring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. prisons, and to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has taken to the airwaves to argue that Obama has made the nation less safe. "It's about whether terrorists are going to show up in your neighborhood, and see a terrorist mowing the lawn next door. It's outrageous," Andrews said of Cheney.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, said that politically, Obama seems to have taken a calculated risk: make national-security decisions that will mollify Republicans, even if it means taking intense heat from liberal Democrats in the short term.
"His gamble is that the left will stay with him. I think that gamble will pay off," Sabato said.