- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

President Obama on Friday will announce his decision to restart the military commission process for a relatively small number of suspected terrorists currently being held in Guantanamo Bay, but will leave unresolved the issue of indefinite detention, the White House said late Thursday.

The new tribunal process will restore a legal process for suspected and accused terrorists that was used under President Bush but drew considerable criticism from civil liberties and liberal groups that decried the fewer rights given detainees than in a civilian Article III criminal court, or alternatively a courts martial system.

Key for the Obama White House is that a few significant changes will be made to the process to allow more rights for the accused.

The changes are intended “to permit for greater due process for the accused so we can get what we’ve been looking for and what has been lacking for the last seven years, which is swift and certain justice for those who plotted and carried out attacks against our country,” a senior Obama administration official told the Washington Times late Thursday, on the condition that he not be identified.

Though the White House said it was “premature” to discuss how many detainees would be placed in the commissions trials, the Associated Press reported that fewer than 20 of the 241 detainees at Guantanamo will be tried in the tribunal system, which Mr. Obama suspended upon taking office.

The White House official disputed the AP’s number but would not say whether fewer or greater than that would be placed into the commissions process. But regardless, the trials will not start immediately.

The president will announce that he is asking Congress to work for 120 days on changes to the system, the senior official said.

“We will file request for further continuance of the cases at Guantanamo, under the Military Commissions Act,” the administration official said. “We will do so to request 60 days to get congressional review of rule changes the president is seeking.”

These changes include restricting the use of hearsay evidence against detainees, in which evidence is introduced without the defendant having the option to cross-examine the witness, a ban on evidence obtained through “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the option for detainees to fire their military attorneys and pick new ones, and allowing detainees to refuse to testify without fear of legal sanction.

Mr. Obama will use another 60 days to seek “further changes to the Military Commissions Act, legislative changes,” the senior White House official said, but would not say what those additional changes might be.

On the same day in January that he suspended military commissions, the president also ordered that Guantanamo be closed within a year. At the time, his legal team acknowledged a conundrum surrounding detainees who are considered too dangerous to release or incarcerate on U.S. soil, but also who cannot be tried in court because the evidence against them is either classified or was obtained through rough interrogation or other possibly illegal means.

Mr. Obama’s announcement Friday will not do anything to solve the problem of whether some Guantanamo detainees will have to face indefinite detention beyond this year.

“There is no announcement on that. We’re just not there yet,” the senior official said.

Detainees that are not placed in military commissions or indefinite detentions could be tried in regular criminal court, released, or sent back to their home countries, though there are significant obstacles to the latter two options.

The president’s decision to continue an unpopular Bush-era legal practice comes one day after he decided not to release previously undisclosed pictures of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, in a change of heart and mind that he said was motivated by thinking about the effect on members of the military abroad.

It was a decision that angered liberals and far left groups who charged Mr. Obama with hiding information from the public. Mr. Obama will doubtless face criticism for continuing military commissions, another Bush-era relic.

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