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Obama will revamp, not reject, tribunals

Detainees pray Thursday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States will restart military tribunals with new legal protections.

Associated Press

Detainees pray Thursday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The United States will restart military tribunals with new legal protections.

WASHINGTON — As a candidate for president, Barack Obama offered himself as a clear alternative to Bush-era antiterrorism policies. Governing has proven muddier.

On Friday, President Obama announced that he would revamp, rather than reject, the system of military tribunals that President George W. Bush created to try terrorism suspects. Earlier in the week, Obama indicated he would fight the release of photos depicting alleged abuse of detainees during Bush's tenure.

The reaction has been fierce. The American Civil Liberties Union accused Obama of "stonewalling tactics and opaque policies" after the photo decision. On Friday, the group threw Obama's words from the campaign back at him: "You can't put lipstick on a pig," they said of his efforts to get Congress to revamp the commissions. Human rights groups vowed to fight Obama in court.

Early moves to ban torture and shutter the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — decisions hailed by human rights groups here and abroad — have been followed by others that left many of his supporters disappointed and angry.

Obama has backed Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, expanded the war in Afghanistan, and opposed prosecution of those involved in alleged torture of detainees.

Friday's announcement was a reversal for a man who, as a candidate, had promised to shelve the military commissions and called their use under Bush an "enormous failure."

"I have faith in America's courts," Obama said on Aug. 7. "As president, I'll close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."

Top Obama aides insist the president is staying true to his principles by ending torture, winding down the Iraq war and closing Guantanamo. But they describe as "excruciating" the weight of the responsibility that he feels to keep the country safe.

"The president has made some enormous strides in changing the direction of our policies," senior adviser David Axelrod said. "But implementing them has its challenges, because you constantly have to balance equities and responsibilities and make decisions that are in the best interest of the country's security in a way that's consistent with our values."

Inside the administration, the debate over the military commissions was rigorous, with Obama eventually siding with the generals and other military officials who feared that bringing some detainees before regular courts presented enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.

That argument, presented to Obama by his top national security aides, prevailed over Justice Department prosecutors who argued that federal courts or long-established military courts-martial could ensure the swift and successful prosecution of captured terrorism suspects.

The administration did not say who will be brought before commissions and to what extent the federal courts will be used to try Guantanamo detainees. Currently, 21 of the 240 detainees at Guantanamo have been charged, and 13 of those defendants have been referred to commissions for trial by a Pentagon official.

ex-detainee in france: A Guantanamo prisoner who won a Supreme Court ruling saying foreign detainees have rights under the Constitution to challenge their detention in courts arrived Friday in France, which agreed to take in the Algerian. Lakhdar Boumediene, 43, was suspected in a bomb plot against the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.


New rules for detainees

Changes in tribunal law announced Friday by President Barack Obama would restore some rights to detainees, including:

• A ban on the use of evidence obtained from coercive interrogations.

• Limits on hearsay evidence.

• More latitude for detainees in selecting their attorneys.

• Protections for defendants who refuse to testify.

Obama will revamp, not reject, tribunals 05/15/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 11:16pm]
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