Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Obama Steps Once More to the Right: The Revival of Military Commissions for Guantanamo Detainees

The Obama Administration recently reaffirmed its support for military commissions by abandoning plans for a civilian trial in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Although the new policy has been known for some time now after the conviction of Ahmed Ghailani in civilian court, the new openness emphasizes the Administration's rekindling of Bush-era detention policies. Bloomberg reports:
Attorney General Eric Holder blamed Congress for the administration’s decision to move the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators to the military justice system. Lawmakers enacted legislation that blocked the administration from moving terror suspects from Guantanamo to the U.S. for trial, and the administration decided it couldn’t allow the case to be delayed while it worked to repeal the restrictions, Holder said.
“Members of Congress have intervened and imposed restrictions blocking the administration from bringing any Guantanamo detainees to trial in the United States, regardless of the venue,” Holder told a news conference in Washington yesterday. “Those unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security.”
This isn't the first time the Obama Administration has blamed Congress for its policies relating to Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Back in January, he signed a bill preventing Gitmo prisoners from arriving to the United States to stand trial.
President Obama then said, "My administration will work with the Congress to seek repeal of these restrictions, will seek to mitigate their effects, and will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future." 
As Glenn Greenwald writes at Salon.com, the notion that Congress forced the President to accept its restrictions barring funds for the transfers of Gitmo detainees is complete nonsense. Greenwald writes,
"Aside from the fact that the Obama administration long ago announced that it would retain the military commission system, the White House -- long before Congress acted to ban transfers of detainees to the U.S. -- removed decision-making power from the DOJ in the KSM case and made clear it would likely reverse Holder's decision." 
Nevertheless, Obama did not veto the bill or fight to have the provisions removed (the Guantanamo restrictions were placed in a defense authorization bill). This isn't the first time the President has broken a promise either. Before taking office, Obama vowed to close Guantanamo Bay within a on year period.  In November 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Administration would prosecute Mohammed in a Manhattan federal courtroom.

Holder did make some interesting statements concerning the merit of federal court systems however. In his Monday speech on the Prosecution of the 9/11 Conspirators he said:
"As the indictment unsealed today reveals, we were prepared to bring a powerful case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators – one of the most well-researched and documented cases I have ever seen in my decades of experience as a prosecutor.   We had carefully evaluated the evidence and concluded that we could prove the defendants’ guilt while adhering to the bedrock traditions and values of our laws.   We had consulted extensively with the intelligence community and developed detailed plans for handling classified evidence.   Had this case proceeded in Manhattan or in an alternative venue in the United States, as I seriously explored in the past year, I am confident that our justice system would have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for over two hundred years."
He went on,
"The fact is, federal courts have proven to be an unparalleled instrument for bringing terrorists to justice.   Our courts have convicted hundreds of terrorists since September 11, and our prisons safely and securely hold hundreds today, many of them serving long sentences.   There is no other tool that has demonstrated the ability to both incapacitate terrorists and collect intelligence from them over such a diverse range of circumstances as our traditional justice system. Our national security demands that we continue to prosecute terrorists in federal court, and we will do so.   Our heritage, our values, and our legacy to future generations also demand that we have full faith and confidence in a court system that has distinguished this nation throughout its history."
It might be good symbolism that Holder still holds some principles concerning civil liberties, but what is unsettling is that he obliges himself to ignore them.

The arguments in favor of trying the Guantanamo prisoners in military commissions is baseless. The first is that the prisoners are too dangerous to be tried in federal court because they are terrorists, or as the right-wing hawks like to refer to them, war criminals. The second is that civilian trials are incapable of properly prosecuting terrorists even though they are capable of properly prosecuting every other class of criminal that has ever existed.

As Rachel Maddow at MSNBC pointed out dramatically, there have been numerous cases of terrorists being tried in federal courts, on U.S. soil, without any substantiated physical threat to any person in the region surrounding the court. In fact, the only Guantanamo detainee to ever be transferred to the U.S. for a civilian trial received a life sentence. The hysteria surrounding his case lied in the Judge's refusal to allow evidence obtained through torture, and the fact that all but 285 counts against Ghailani were thrown out. And as Andy Worthington pointed out in an interview with Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio, the only reason the prosecution was allowed to proceed in federal court was because the Department of Justice knew it could secure a conviction. Otherwise, the current system of indefinite detention would and does remain in place. The material result of convicting Ghailani on a charge of conspiracy was the same as holding him in Cuba for the rest of his life.

Contrast this with the fool proof military commission system. As Jim Lobe reports at Inter Press Service,
"At the same time, military commissions, whose operations were suspended by Obama after taking office, have obtained only six convictions—four by plea bargain—that actually resulted in much lighter sentences due to doubts about whether the commissions’ procedures could withstand scrutiny once they were appealed to federal courts."
Moreover, Ramzi Yousef, who received two life sentences in a U.S. district court in Manhattan, is now sitting in a supermax facility in Colorado for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the Bojinka plot. Where was the intense climate of fear and concern for proper justice when he was being convicted? Where is the fear and concern for America's safety in the case of Farouk Abdulmutallab or Faisal Shahzad? These are individuals who attempted to attack the U.S. through destructive capabilities and they were both tried and convicted in federal court. As terrorists who tried harming the U.S. within the first two years of the Obama Administration, there was little public outcry concerning their actions and fates. Most of the 174 prisoners still at Guantanamo Bay have been there for years and most Americans are unable to name a single prisoner and describe the crime he is accused of.

Since the decision to prosecute Gitmo detainees in a civilian trial or a military tribunal rests on whether or not there is enough evidence to get a conviction, it is worth noting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted to an al Jazeera reporter that he, along with Ramzi bin al-Shibh were responsible for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. It's unclear that Obama is pandering to the Right, but if he is it is extremely pathetic for the President to defer this prosecution for purely political reasons.

The existence of military commissions remains dangerous for a nation that is supposed to be a free society. When the government is engaged in a state of permanent war, it is nearly impossible to return to the precedent where the rule of law is respected. Worse yet, is that we are engaged in a war on terrorism which is a strategic tactic. This means that any person accused of using this tactic becomes an enemy combatant and loses all constitutional rights including habeas corpus. Unfortunately for those of us who care for civil liberties, it is doubtful that Guantanamo Bay will close within the next ten years and habeas corpus restored.

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