Obama orders Guantánamo tribunals to resume. Is he abandoning his pledge?

Obama ends a two-year ban on military tribunals at the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, which he had vowed to close. In a bid to enhance US 'values,' he orders a new review process for detainees.

Jim Young/Reuters
Protesters seeking the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility wear orange jumpsuits and black head masks as they demonstrate outside the White House in Washington, Jan. 14.

In the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama vowed that if elected he’d shut the US prison for terror suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But today President Obama seems as far as ever from being able to fulfill that promise.

That may be a bottom line from the administration’s move on Monday to end a two-year ban and resume military-commission trials for detainees at the Guantánamo facility.

“The president does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the decision.

Besides resuming the commissions, the White House Monday said it remains committed to trying some terrorist suspects in US federal courts. That is something that has met vehement bipartisan opposition in Congress.

“I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system – including Article III courts – to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,” Obama said in a statement. Article III courts are civilian tribunals, as opposed to military commissions.

Obama’s actions dealing with Guantánamo and its prisoners on Monday were contained in a series of linked decisions that dealt with a number of aspects of the whole US detainee process.

In restarting the military tribunal process following a two-year hiatus, the administration did not opt for a carbon copy of the process used under President Bush. The proceedings will not be able to use any information obtained via a process determined to be cruel or inhuman, for instance. Handling of classified information will be revamped.

In addition, Obama issued an executive order setting up a review process for Guantánamo detainees who have yet to face a full tribunal or who are being detained indefinitely as military combatants.

These reviews will be held by a board consisting of intelligence agency officials and representatives from the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, and Homeland Security. Detainees will have a defense representative assigned them, and will be able to hire outside lawyers if they wish. Defense representatives with the proper clearances will be able to view classified evidence.

Taken together these moves mark “a substantial improvement over the status quo,” writes University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney on the “Lawfare” national security blog.

In announcing these moves the administration also reiterated its belief that federal courts in the US are fully capable of handling the strains and possible danger of a trial of a terror suspect. Whether such trials will ever occur remains an open question, however, due to congressional opposition.

Similarly, congressional opposition to the placement of any Guantánamo detainees on US soil has been a major reason why the prison has yet to be closed. Restrictions passed by lawmakers have also made the process of placing detainees in other nations much more difficult, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently told a congressional hearing.

Taken together, the White House moves on Monday “enhance our ability to protect our security and our values,” said a senior administration official. Military commissions are likely to resume soon – in days or weeks, said the official.

The first such trail likely under Obama’s new order may involve Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Mr. Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, has been imprisoned at Guantánamo since 2006.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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