And so Barack Obama finally commits to the creation of a parallel justice system – one in which the threshold of evidence is lower, people can be preventively detained or have no trial at all (indefinitely), and that is run by military commissions. On Cuba, a satellite piece of land outside the US mainland and its ordinary criminal justice system. Even though as a presidential candidate, the darling of civil libertarians, liberals and Democrats, Obama said to vehemently oppose the Bush-Cheney counterterrorism policies that had resulted in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, the military commissions, and indefinite preventive detention for terrorism suspects.
If Obama taught me one thing, it is that you should never, ever trust politicians. That’s the lesson that I guess is to be learnt from this guy’s election and presidency.
But anyway. Indefinite detention is now a fact. Procedurally, some things have of course been improved since Bush-Cheney. Detainees on trial now have legal rights which come closer to those in the ordinary justice system; detainees who will not be tried will, it is promised, within a year receive status reviews of the level of ‘threat’ they impose. Obama’s executive order lifting his two-year ban on military trials requires compliance with the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Also – importantly – this order only covers those currently held, and does not extent to any possible future detainees.
But otherwise, Gitmo will not be closed, 9/11 plotters will not get a criminal trial (which would have shown the world what a law-honoring, justice-minded country the US would be), and the way is open for any future Republican president to expand upon this parallel justice system. Yes we can.
President Obama on Monday reversed his two-year-old order halting new military charges against detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, permitting military trials to resume with revamped procedures but implicitly admitting the failure of his pledge to close the prison camp.
Mr. Obama said in a statement that he remained committed to closing Guantánamo someday and to charging some terrorism suspects in civilian criminal courts. But Congress has blocked the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo to the United States for trial, frustrating the administration’s plan to hold civilian trials for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed chief plotter of the Sept. 11 attacks, and others accused of terrorism.
Officials declined to say whether Mr. Mohammed would be scheduled for a military commission or would await a trial in federal court if Congress lifts its prohibition.
Separately, for detainees who will not get trials, Mr. Obama set out new rules in an executive order Monday requiring a review of their status within a year and every three years after that to determine whether they remain a threat, should be scheduled for a military trial or should be released. The order also requires compliance with the Geneva Conventions and the international treaty that bans torture and inhumane treatment.
Civil liberties advocates, who have long been critical of Guantánamo, expressed disappointment that the military system remained in place more than two years after Mr. Obama took office.
“This is a step down the road toward institutionalizing a preventive-detention regime,” said Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First. “People in the Mideast are looking to establish new rules for their own societies, and this sends a mixed message at best.”
Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com is, as always, indispensable. He especially debunks the idea, also found in the NYT article above, that it is Congress, not Obama, that drives these policies:
It is true that Congress — with the overwhelming support of both parties — has enacted several measures making it much more difficult, indeed impossible, to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. But long before that ever happened, Obama made clear that he wanted to continue the twin defining pillars of the Bush detention regime: namely, (1) indefinite, charge-free detention and (2) military commissions (for those lucky enough to be charged with something). Obama never had a plan for “closing Guantanamo” in any meaningful sense; the most he sought to do was to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where its defining injustices would endure.
The preservation of the crux of the Bush detention scheme was advocated by Obama long before Congress’ ban on transferring detainees to the U.S. It was in May, 2009 — a mere five months after his inauguration — that Obama stood up in front of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives and demanded a new law of “preventive detention” to empower him to imprison people without charges: a plan the New York Times said “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself.” It was the same month that the administration announced it intended to continue to deny many detainees trials, instead preserving the military commissions scheme, albeit with modifications. And the first — and only — Obama plan for “closing Guantanamo” came in December, 2009, and it entailed nothing more than transferring the camp to a supermax prison in Thompson, Illinois, while preserving its key ingredients, prompting the name “Gitmo North.”
None of this was even arguably necessitated by Congressional action. To the contrary, almost all of it took place before Congress did anything. It was Barack Obama’s position — not that of Congress — that detainees could and should be denied trials, that our court system was inadequate and inappropriate to try them, and that he possessed the unilateral, unrestrained power under the “laws of war” to order them imprisoned for years, even indefinitely, without bothering to charge them with a crime and without any review by the judiciary, in some cases without even the right of habeas review (to see why claims of such “law of war” detention power are so baseless, see the points here, especially point 5).
In other words, Obama — for reasons having nothing to do with Congress — worked from the start to preserve the crux of the Bush/Cheney detention regime.
- Edit: The Guardian, by the way, is up to date and puts it right. You won’t find that in a Dutch newspaper. Kudos to Liz.