Obama Restarts Military Trials for Guantánamo Detainees

Posted March 7, 2011 at 6:47pm

Updated: 8:01 p.m.

With his plans to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in limbo, President Barack Obama has restarted using military commissions to prosecute some of the terrorism suspects held there, he announced Monday.

Obama also set up a separate system for an annual administrative review of detainees who are being held indefinitely without trial, and he is calling on the Senate to ratify an update to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of detainees, which would require 67 votes. That language forbids corporal punishment and degrading treatment.

Senior administration officials said Monday that Obama remains committed to closing the prison but decided to make improvements to the existing system via executive order while he works with Congress on the issue. Congress has shown no appetite for moving forward on closing the prison by relocating prisoners to the United States or for allowing detainees to be tried in U.S. courts.

The administration officials said Obama remains committed to trying some detainees in U.S. criminal courts, but others would have military trials and still others would continue to be held without trial.

The officials said that the new standards and reviews contained in Monday’s executive order separate Obama’s treatment of detainees from the policy of President George W. Bush’s administration. For example, the order creates the annual administrative review committee for detainees being held indefinitely. Detainees would be entitled to a personal representative and could make a statement to the review committee. They could also hire an outside attorney, but only at their own expense.

Reaction was mixed.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said the executive order “falls far short of core constitutional values by failing to provide judicial review of cases considered by the review board or guaranteeing meaningful assistance of counsel.” The Vermont Democrat added that the policy does little to close the prison and that the administration should put detainees on trial, “not establish a new system that contemplates indefinite detention.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, praised Obama for restarting the military commissions but criticized him for still seeking to try some detainees in U.S. criminal courts.

“I’m extremely disappointed that the administration still doesn’t get it and continues to ignore the will of Congress and the American people by insisting on giving these foreign terrorists a venue in our federal courts,” the Iowa Republican said. “Holding trials at courthouses in American communities, instead of at Guantánamo Bay, would introduce needless risks and burdens. And, it’s unconscionable that people whose goal is to inflict harm on and kill American citizens would be given a megaphone to spew their hatred in our courtrooms.”

Congress already has forbidden Obama from bringing detainees to the United States for trial. The fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill, which Obama signed into law in January, prevents Pentagon funding from being used to transfer Guantánamo prisoners to the United States.