Will return to military tribunals prompt Guantanamo closing?

Republicans may back closing the Guantanamo Bay prison if the Obama administration decides to try alleged 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by military tribunal.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
In this file photo reviewed by the US military, flags hang above the sign marking the Camp Justice compound, the site of the US war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba.

Abandoning plans to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal court could allow the Obama administration to finally close the military-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Some Republicans who are adamantly opposed to allowing Guantanamo prisoners access to the US civilian justice system might support closing “Gitmo” if the White House reverses course, and agrees to try Mr. Mohammed and four of his alleged conspirators via military commission. (Read about how military tribunals would change under Obama, here.)

Some of the administration’s more liberal supporters likely would be angered by such a move, however.

“If the president flip-flops and retreats to the Bush military commissions, he will betray his campaign promise to restore the rule of law, demonstrate that his principles are up for grabs and lose all credibility with Americans who care about justice and the rule of law,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement.

The administration has yet to officially announce the change. Numerous news reports say it is under consideration. (Read analysis about Obama's terror trial switch here.)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, among others, has argued that it is inappropriate to try Mohammed in New York City in a civilian courtroom.

“If . . . Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is taking credit for planning 9/11, is not an enemy combatant at war with the United States, worthy of a military commission trial, who would be?” said Senator Graham in a Fox News Channel broadcast interview on Friday.

Graham said that he has long advocated closing Guantanamo Bay, if it is safe to do so. That safety would be ensured only by a comprehensive overhaul of the way the most dangerous Guantanamo inmates are to be tried, he said.

“What I have been trying to do from the Bush administration to now, is to create a legal system that recognizes we are at war, that understands there [are] due process rights available to detainees at war, but that they are not common criminals,” Graham said.

Attorney General Eric Holder decided last November to transfer Mohammed and four others from the Cuba prison to New York for civilian trials. City officials initially welcomed the move, but switched their opinion later, due, they said, to the costs and logistical problems involved. (Monitor coverage of Holder's announcement here.)

Bipartisan opposition to the move grew in Congress, as well. Few lawmakers were eager to have their state or district named as the site where terror suspects would be held. (New York divided over 9/11 trials, here.)

The administration eventually said it would review Holder’s trial decision and consider all options for a new location.

Obama officials had seen civilian trials for accused terrorists as an important demonstration of the US rule of law. Human rights groups are urging the president to maintain that position.

“Even with recent improvements, the military commissions systems is incapable of handling complicated terrorism cases and achieving reliable results,” said the ACLU’s Mr. Romero.

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