White House Says Tribunals Can Resume at Guantánamo

    1

    March 7, 2011
    By REUTERS
    NYTimes.com

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama lifted a two-year freeze on new
    military trials at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and suggested on Monday Congress was
    hurting national security by blocking his attempts to move some trials into
    U.S. civilian courts.

    In an apparent acknowledgment that the Guantánamo detention camp won’t be shut
    down any time soon, Obama also outlined procedures for reviews to be held at
    least every four years for prisoners held indefinitely without charge or trial.

    Obama suspended new trials at the Guantánamo tribunals, which had been heavily
    criticized as unfair, when he announced his review of detainee policy in early
    2009 and vowed just after becoming president that he would close the camp.

    Administration officials said Obama still wants to close the prison, which
    they have called a recruiting tool for anti-American militants, but gave no
    timeframe.

    Obama had tried, and failed, to overcome objections by Republicans and some
    of his fellow Democrats in Congress to transferring some detainees to U.S. prisons
    and trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and
    others in federal courts.

    The administration has also struggled to convince other countries to accept
    detainees.

    Obama said on Monday he still wanted some — all terrorism suspects — to face
    civilian trials, and resistance to doing so undermined U.S. counter-terrorism
    efforts.

    “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
    (U.S. federal courts) — to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,”
    Obama said in a statement.

    Obama also issued an executive order on Monday establishing a process to continue
    to hold some Guantánamo detainees who have been neither charged, convicted nor
    designated for transfer but are deemed to pose a threat to U.S. security.

    He ordered reviews of the determination that some detainees were so dangerous
    they must be held without charge, with a review for each coming as quickly as
    possible, but no later than one year from the order.

    RIGHTS GROUPS DISAPPOINTED

    The first round of new charges against detainees could come within days or
    weeks, a senior administration official said.

    Obama also said he would ask the Senate to ratify additions to the Geneva conventions
    that safeguard the rights of victims of conflicts within nations, such as the
    one in Afghanistan, as opposed to those between nations.

    Afghanistan has signed that protocol, and some experts said the United States
    signing could give Washington the option of transferring detainees to Afghanistan.

    Administration officials said on Monday the camp system had already been improved
    by measures including banning the use of statements taken as a result of cruel
    treatment and a better system for handling classified information.

    Rights activists were disappointed.

    Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security
    Project, said the best way to get out of “the Guantánamo morass” would
    be to use the U.S. courts.

    “Instead, the Obama administration has chosen to institutionalize unlawful,
    indefinite detentions and to revive illegitimate military commissions, which
    will do nothing to remove the stain on America’s reputation that Guantánamo
    represents,” she told Reuters.

    There are still 172 detainees at Guantánamo. About three dozen were set for
    prosecution in either U.S. criminal courts or military commissions. There were
    242 detainees when Obama took office. Many have been held there for more than
    nine years.

    “The president’s ongoing commitment to close the prison at Guantánamo
    Bay holds,” a senior administration official said.

    “We’ve done a lot of legwork in the service of closing Guantánamo bay,”
    he said.

    The White House blasted some members of Congress who sought to “undermine”
    efforts to bring Guantánamo defendants to justice, pointing particularly to
    restrictions enacted in December on prosecuting detainees in federal courts.

    Congressional responses to Monday’s announcement were along party lines, with
    Democrats supporting Obama and Republicans criticizing him for failing to work
    with Congress to come up with a long-term plan for holding detainees.

    Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped the new trials would
    start soon. “The administration’s earlier decision to bring the 9/11 plotters
    into our communities for civilian trials was a horrible idea that rightly drew
    widespread opposition,” he said.

    (Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, and Caren Bohan, Jeff Mason
    and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Todd Eastham)