Undoing Gitmo

23 01 2009

In just days after the nation welcomed him as its newly inaugurated president, Barack Obama swiftly moved to undo some his predecessor’s legacy in shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay and the network of secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency.

President Barack Obama began by signing an executive order instructing military prosecutors to seek a 4 month delay of the military commissions process in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the site of a U.S. naval base and prison camp.  The Obama administration will use the 120-day period to “undertake a thorough review of both the pending cases and the military commissions process” to further the “interests of justice.”

A military judge granted the request for the delay on Wednesday.

In choosing to halt the trials of Gitmo detainees, experts believe President Obama wants to either try detainees in federal courts as criminal defendants or in a courts martial or even create a specialized system where the accused are accorded a a greater measure of due process rights and end the use of abusive interrogation practices.

During Bush’s tenure, many prisoners at Gitmo were held indefinitely without charge, tortured by CIA officials, had secret evidence used against them to justify their detention, and in the vast majority of cases could not challenge the legality of the very incarceration.

A key Bush administration official, Judge Susan J. Crawford, recently told the Washington Post she did not refer certain cases at Gitmo for prosecution because she believes the U.S. tortured certain detainees while interrogating them, rendering their confessions inadmissible. Also, a recent bipartisan Congressional report, found that former Secretary of Defense “Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques for use at Guantanamo Bay was a direct cause of detainee abuse there.”

Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee who currently serves in the same post, urged the outgoing president to shut down the prison this summer because it also diminished U.S. standing in world. “I think that despite the fact that in many respects Guantanamo has become a state-of-the-art prison now, early reports of abuses and so on unquestionably were a black eye for the United States,” Gates said this summer.

On November 13, 2001, President Bush signed a military order to create the military commissions. The commissions were designed to try, treat and detain non-U.S. citizens in an effort to prosecute and interrogate so-called war on terror suspects and enemy-combatants, a class of fighters that are not quite conventional soldiers, but were captured on the battlefield by American troops.

In 2006, a Republican controlled Congress passed the Military Commissions Act. The law gave Bush with the authority that the Supreme Court said he could not usurp with an executive order alone to set up his own court system that escaped scrutiny from other branches of government and suspended a prisoner’s right to contest his own imprisonment.

But Barack Obama is now moving with all deliberate haste to change course.

As the 44th president noted in his inaugural address on Tuesday, the framers of our constitution “understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.  Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

So, in many ways these initial steps signify a break with the old regime and yet an embrace of America’s oldest traditions that happens to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

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