- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 16, 2009

President Obama on Friday announced plans to restart the military commissions launched under President Bush to try some suspected terrorists held at the Guantanamo Bay detention site, sparking fresh anger from liberal and human rights groups who had hoped Mr. Obama’s election signaled a clean break with Bush-era policies.

Mr. Obama argued that changes he was making to the system would give detainees the due process previously unavailable to them.

“These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law,” Mr. Obama said in a written statement released by the White House. “This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values.”

But Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International, said that no matter what changes are made, the trials still “do not provide an adequate standard of justice for the detainees nor the victims of terrorism - they merely mock the U.S. Constitution, international laws and undermine fundamental human rights standards.”

“Tweaking the rules of these failed tribunals so that they provide ‘more due process’ is absurd. There is no such thing as ‘due process lite,’” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Romero added, “As unfortunate as it is to inherit [the Bush administration’s] legacy, to accommodate those policies is essentially to ratify them.”

Mr. Obama said the Department of Defense would make several changes to the tribunal process that require only a 60-day congressional review, and the White House will “work with the Congress on additional reforms,” which he did not describe in detail.

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.

“The burden will no longer be on the party who objects to hearsay to disprove its reliability,” Mr. Obama said.

Other changes include a ban on evidence obtained through “cruel, inhuman or degrading interrogation methods”; giving detainees the option to fire their military attorneys and choose new ones; and allowing detainees to refuse to testify without fear of legal sanction.

The Obama administration left unanswered the question of holding some detainees indefinitely, saying only that it was not ready to announce a decision on the issue.

The president will give a major speech on Guantanamo Bay and his detainee policies on Thursday, the White House said.

Republican leaders applauded Mr. Obama’s decision.

“I will review the president’s proposal to ensure it will not handicap our soldiers in the field, put classified information at risk, or unreasonably prevent bringing these terrorists to justice. But his willingness to return to the bipartisan approach of military commissions for trying detainees now held in Guantanamo Bay [Cuba] is an encouraging development,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Mr. Obama’s rival in the 2008 presidential race, also praised the decision but said it was “only a step” toward a comprehensive policy.

“There remain numerous unresolved questions about the future of U.S. detainee policy, including where the Guantanamo inmates will be held and tried, how we will handle those who cannot be tried but are too dangerous to release, and how to deal with the prisoners” held in Afghanistan, he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, responded noncommittally but did not reject Mr. Obama’s decision outright.

“I have always said that establishing appropriate military commissions is possible,” Mr. Leahy said. “I look forward to reviewing the Obama administration’s proposals for providing a fair system of military commissions.”

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

A senior White House official disputed the AP’s number but would not provide an estimate. Whatever the number, the trials will not start immediately.

The president is asking Congress for 120 days to legislate changes to the system, the senior official said.

As for a decision on the issue of indefinite detention, the official said, “we’re just not there yet.”

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 dilemma over detainees considered too dangerous to release or incarcerate on U.S. soil, but also who cannot be tried in U.S. courts because the evidence against them is either classified or was obtained through harsh interrogations or other possibly illegal means.

Detainees who are not placed before military commissions or indefinitely detained could be tried in regular criminal courts, released, or sent back to their home countries, though there are significant obstacles to the latter two options.

The president’s decision to continue a widely criticized Bush-era legal practice was announced two days after he decided not to release previously undisclosed pictures of purported prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, a change of heart and mind he said was motivated by the possible consequences on members of the military abroad from releasing the photographs.

It was another decision that angered liberals and civil liberties advocates, who charged Mr. Obama with hiding information from the public.

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