President Obama on Monday ordered that military commission trials be resumed at Guantánamo Bay.
The move represents a defeat for Obama, who pledged to close the terrorist detention facility in Cuba within one year of taking office. The president had hoped to hold trials in federal court for many of the detainees, but ran into stiff opposition from both parties.
The White House said Obama “remains committed” to closing the Guantánamo camp, but the president’s decision to direct Gates to rescind his suspension of new charges by military commissions signals it is unlikely prisoners will be successfully transferred anytime soon.
The sense that Guantánamo would remain open for some time had become clearer in recent weeks, with both Obama’s attorney general and CIA director raising serious doubts to Congress about its closing.
The administration says it wants to close the facility because of the alleged torture and physical abuses that were committed against suspected terrorists. Terrorist groups use the prison and its improprieties as a recruitment tool for people to be drawn to attack the U.S., the White House contends.
Obama suspended military trials shortly after taking office, but the administration ran into a buzz-saw of opposition on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers refused to allow any detainees into courts or jails in their districts.
Administration efforts to hold civilian trials were also hurt by Ahmed Ghailani’s acquittal on more than 224 counts of murder and other charges last year. Ghailani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in bombing two U.S. embassies in Africa, but the acquittal on the other charges led to doubts on the ability of civilian courts to handle detainee trials.
“Though the Administration tried to spin the case as a success, it was a near disaster,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “If Ghailani had been acquitted of just one more count, he would have been considered innocent of these heinous crimes.”
Smith and other lawmakers in both parties received Monday’s decision warmly, with Smith stating that Obama “has finally seen the light.”
Smith said he saw the announcement as a clear step away from trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, which the administration has heavily advocated over the past two years.
“As Republicans have been saying all along, terrorists should be treated as enemy combatants, not common criminals,” he said in a statement. “Trying foreign terrorists in civilian court makes it harder for prosecutors to obtain convictions and gives terrorists a public forum to spew their radical hate for America.”
The White House and Gates, however, insisted the administration was not shying away from using civilian courts to try suspected terrorists.
“For years, our federal courts have proven to be a secure and effective means for bringing terrorists to justice,” said Gates in a statement. “To completely foreclose this option is unwise and unnecessary.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), echoed his support for civilian trials and blamed lawmakers for confusing the issue.
“I take the president at his word that he still wants to close Gitmo and try detainees in civilian courts,” Thompson said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the relentless politicization of this national-security issue in the Congress has left him little room to maneuver.”
Rep. Adam SmithAdam SmithCongress to clear path for Mattis Budowsky: Did Putin elect Trump? Pelosi: Dems OK with Mattis compromise MORE (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that Obama’s executive order on Monday would allow the U.S. greater flexibility in prosecuting suspected terrorists. He added that it was only the first step and called on fellow lawmakers to work together to create a long-term solution.
“It’s time to put aside rhetoric and short-term political goals and focus on solutions,” Smith said.
Obama ordered several other changes on Monday that will alter how commissions are run as part of the broader Military Commissions Act of 2009. Congress passed that measure after Obama ordered a review of the commissions.
In a statement, the White House said statements given as a result of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” had been banned based on work with members of Congress in both parties. The statement also hailed a better system for handling classified information.
“With these and other reforms, military commissions, along with prosecutions of suspected terrorists in civilian courts, are an available and important tool in combating international terrorists that fall within their jurisdiction while upholding the rule of law,” the White House said.
Additionally, Obama by executive order created a periodic review process for detainees who cannot be tried or released because they represent a continued threat to national security. Under the newly reformed military commission process, detainees would be able to retain a voluntary lawyer or hire private counsel.
“While we continue to work to close Guantánamo, these steps will ensure that the detention of individuals there is appropriate under our laws,” said Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderTop Dem signals likely opposition to Sessions nomination Instead of 'hope and change' Obama gave progressives Trump Republicans want to grease tracks for Trump MORE.
The White House said the review “will help to ensure that individuals who we have determined will be subject to long-term detention continue to be detained only when lawful and necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States.”
A senior administration official said that the State Department and the Department of Defense would continue the work of trying to transfer some of the remaining Guantánamo detainees to foreign countries. To date, 67 detainees have been transferred.
“If a final determination is made that a detainee no longer constitutes a significant threat to our security, the executive order provides that the secretaries of State and Defense are to identify a suitable transfer location outside the United States, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and applicable law,” the fact sheet said. “As the president has stated before, no Guantánamo detainee will be released into the United States.”
This story was posted at 3:07 and updated at 6:34 p.m. and 8:06 p.m.