Finally, common sense has won out.
President Barack Obama, once a sharp critic of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and the use of military tribunals to prosecute detainees, is now planning to do an about-face and proceed with his own military trials. After encountering numerous upsets in fulfilling his campaign promise to close the facility and end military tribunals, this latest acquiescence from the Obama team likely indicates the end to the hope that either will be achieved in the president’s first term. A vindicating development for the Bush administration, this sudden turnaround represents a great victory for the American people, who sustained the opposition to the facility’s closure.
A New York Times story reported on Wednesday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to clear the way for new cases against about 30 of the 173 prisoners still held in “Gitmo.” (Still more detainees will face trial in the future, while some will be released in other countries.) This legal green light would allow for new charges against detainees for the first time under the Obama administration.
This latest development in Obama’s long-standing hate-hate relationship with Guantanamo has been construed as a response to a bill passed in Congress that banned the transfer of prisoners to the United States for any reason, including trials. Civilian trials for detainees came to a standstill early last year after popular opposition arose over the administration’s attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a high-ranking 9/11 plotter, in New York City.
Obama’s latest action regarding detainee trials stands in stark contrast to his hasty election promise to dismantle the Military Commissions Act. The president had even once termed the military commission system “an enormous failure,” vowing to have the detainees’ cases transferred to civilian courts. To indicate the high priority he assigned Gitmo, on his inauguration day, Obama even signed a 120-day delay of all trials in progress at the facility.
People have also not forgotten Obama’s other ill-considered election promise to close the detention facility within a year of being elected. And again, Obama indicated the urgency of this promise by signing an executive order to close the facility only two days after entering office.
Obama’s failure to keep his word, however, was not the result of cheap electioneering people have become so accustomed to from politicians. Once in office, Obama appeared to rethink the wisdom of his ambitions after getting a glance at the remaining Gitmo terrorists’ files and confronting the great difficulty of dealing with them in a way that would not recklessly endanger the public. Numerous terrorists (many released during the Bush administration) have already gone back to terrorist enclaves since their release into other countries, and the overall rate of recidivism is very high. Extremely dangerous detainees, numbering some several dozen, will likely be detained indefinitely.
Early on, the threat posed by these problematic detainees made it apparent that Guantanamo would not be closed any time soon. House Democrats also signaled to the administration they did not want any al-Qaeda members in the United States, especially in the districts they represented. After years of hypocritically criticizing the Bush administration about the Gunatanamo facility, when they had the chance, congressional Democrats refused to vote the money to close it.
The decision to resume military tribunals will come as a great relief to the intelligence community, which civilian terrorist trials would have seriously jeopardized. In civilian trials, all information regarding the government’s case, including the names of informants and intelligence gathering methods, would have to be revealed. Such important data, normally kept secret or within the confines of a military tribunal, could then find its ways into the wrong hands.
This has already happened once in America in the civilian trial of the “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. At least one of the documents turned over to Rahman’s lawyers found its way to al-Qaeda, which at that time had its headquarters in the Sudan.
“That document contained a list of people who were on the government’s radar screen – and thus alerted al Qaeda to the possibility of surveillance,” the Strategy Page reported.
But a major reason to rejoice over the tribunal decision is that it rules out the possibility of crucial evidence being thrown for having been obtained by “questionable methods.” People were shocked last year when a Gitmo prisoner, on trial in New York courtroom, had all but one of 285 counts against him dismissed by a civilian jury. The prisoner, Ahmed Ghailani, accused of helping bomb the US embassies in Africa, nearly walked out of the courtroom a free man, which, according to a Wall Street Journal story, caused the plans for more civilian trials to grind to a halt.
According to the New York Times, one of the detainees facing trial under the new initiative, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is accused of helping plan the USS Cole bombing in 2000, fits into the same category as Ahmed Ghailani. Al-Nashiri was one of the detainees who was subjected to “waterboarding” and claims to have undergone other harsh interrogation methods. According to the Times, Nashiri’s lawyer is planning to “highlight Mr. Nashiri’s treatment in CIA custody.”
Unhappy with White House’s decision to move forward with military trials are Obama’s left wing supporters. The American Civil Liberties Union, which views all detainees as victims of human rights abuses, is already calling Nashiri’s appearance before a military tribunal “a sham trial” and has criticized the Obama administration’s reforms of the military justice system, saying in a statement, “[W]e have seen nothing but mounting evidence that the military commissions are incapable of delivering justice.”
But deep down such leftist critics are probably even angrier and more deeply disappointed by the fact that by retaining the military tribunal system and keeping Guantanamo open, the president they supported is proving right the president they hated, George W. Bush. Fortunately — at least for the time being — the national interest has won the day.