Obama endorses military commissions for Guantánamo detainees
Obama signed the Military Commissions Act of 2009 Wednesday. Critics say it is an improvement over past efforts but still offers only second-class justice to Guantánamo detainees.
In signing the National Defense Authorization Act on Wednesday, President Obama has personally endorsed yet another attempt by the US government to conduct military-commission trials of terror suspects currently held at the Guantánamo detention camp.Skip to next paragraph
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Similar efforts have stalled with legal challenges and Supreme Court decisions. But supporters say that the Military Commissions Act of 2009 balances the demands of fairness and due process against a real-world need for flexibility when seeking to prosecute accused Al Qaeda leaders and supporters.
Critics say that the 2009 act is an improvement over prior versions of military-commission regimes passed during the Bush administration. But they say it is still substandard, offering a second-class system of justice designed to obtain quick convictions.
"While the new law addresses some of the defects of the military commissions, it fails to bring the tribunals in line with the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project.
"The Obama administration has committed to closing the prison at Guantánamo, but closing the prison will have little meaning if the administration leaves in place the policies that the prison has come to represent," he said.
With the signing of the legislation at the White House, defense officials now have 90 days to update rules and procedures for the commissions. At least a dozen suspected Al Qaeda members and leaders – including self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – are already slated for commission trials. The Obama administration is expected to soon announce which other detainees will also face military justice through the revised commission system.
The 2009 law retains the basic structure of the existing commissions. A military judge presides over the trial, ruling on issues of law and evidence, and a panel of US service members decides issues of fact and guilt or innocence. The panel can range from five members in lesser cases to at least 12 in trials involving a potential death sentence. Under the law, the president must give his personal approval before an execution may be carried out.
The new law excludes statements obtained through torture or through cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. But Congress empowered the secretary of Defense to enact rules permitting admission of coerced statements and hearsay evidence. These are departures from trial rights routinely provided to US service members in courts-martial.