On Feb. 6, President Obama met with family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, and USS Cole terror attacks. At that first emotional meeting, Mr. Obama explained his reasons for closing the detention facilities for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba, along an arbitrary one-year timeline.
He also discussed his halting of the military-commissions process and establishment of a task force to review the cases of those held at Guantanamo. Mr. Obama then patiently listened to the family members’ concerns and frustrations regarding his decisions.
Near the conclusion of the meeting, I had the opportunity to express my views on his self-imposed timeline, the dropping of charges against the mastermind of the USS Cole attack and the rumored release of an unknown number of Guantanamo Bay detainees. I asked the president to involve victims and families in crafting the policy he was hard-pressed to develop on the future of the Guantanamo detainees.
Mr. Obama agreed and reiterated his commitment to seeing justice served swiftly. We took him at his word. It remains an unfulfilled promise. Policy is being made, and terror victims fade from sight. The Cole families may have received little attention or acknowledgment from the George W. Bush administration, but at least there were no empty promises.
Four months have passed, and last week, after more delays in the process, the administration called victims of the Cole, Bali and Sept. 11 attacks together again to receive an update about the work of the Detainee Review Task Force. The meeting was emotional and heart-wrenching.
Each person was given the opportunity to speak about the impact the president’s decisions were having on him or her and loved ones. The brave families of our heroes showed true courage in that room. Once again, they had traveled to Washington to express their frustration at seeing justice delayed. If they were truly involved, and the administration were listening, the circumstances below - only amplified by the meeting - simply would not exist.
• Task force members waffled on the fundamental question of whether we are at war with al Qaeda or individuals akin to domestic criminals. Eventually, the members settled on a firm decision - both. But victims largely believe we are a nation at war. In war, military commissions are the venue best-suited for holding suspected terrorists accountable for their actions. Extending Miranda rights and constitutional privileges to terror suspects, which is being considered earnestly by this administration, undermines our military, distorts our justice system in favor of the detainees at the expense of the families, and diminishes the murder of thousands who died at their hands.
• Though created to complete a review of each detainee’s case, the task force appears to be a front for a predetermined political agenda. Decisions on releasing suspected terrorists and bringing others to the United States have been made already on numerous occasions. Each was carried out in the dead of night, without prior notification to Congress or the American people, and, more important, without any consideration of the impact on the families who have suffered so much as a result of their heinous acts.
• Inconsistent consideration of human rights regarding detainee transfers continues to be a problem. The administration claims the United States cannot transfer the 17 Uighur detainees to China because of China’s egregious human rights record. Yet this administration is forcefully negotiating to send the vast majority of the remaining Saudi and Yemeni detainees back to Saudi Arabia, a country cited as recently as last year for its abysmal human rights record. Saudi Arabia and Yemen are a nexus for al Qaeda recruiting, and both countries have shown an unwillingness to wage an aggressive battle against the terrorists.
• The rights of detainees have overshadowed the rights of victims of terrorism. Not once during the meeting did task force members mention that they were taking the rights of victims of terrorism into consideration when deciding what process would ultimately bring these purported terrorists to justice. In a sickening insult to the families, the attorney general had one of his new Justice Department lawyers - Jennifer Daskal, former Gitmo detainee advocate for Human Rights Watch - sit quietly in the room listening to the victims’ stories.
It could not be clearer that, to this point, the rights and treatment of detainees rather than of the victims have been of paramount consideration. After watching the Obama administration’s “process” to date, one can legitimately ask whether meetings like the one at the Justice Department last week are a serious attempt at seeking input or another political maneuver to limit public-relations damage for forthcoming, unpopular and dangerous decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Kirk Lippold, a retired Navy commander, was the commanding officer of the USS Cole when it was attacked by al Qaeda in 2000. He served on the staff of the Joint Chiefs, specializing in detainee policy. He is a senior military fellow at Military Families United, a national military family and national security advocacy organization.