WASHINGTON — No longer will there be "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, the Obama administration said Friday. Moreover, the president no longer claims that his title as commander in chief allows him to order dangerous persons captured and held without trial.
Little is likely to change, however. Having abandoned the George W. Bush administration's favorite terms in the war on terrorism, the new administration claimed for itself roughly the same power to hold Guantanamo's detainees indefinitely, even those who never held a gun or went near a battlefield.
The Justice Department emphasized the change in terminology in a news release. Lawyers who have been fighting the government countered that nothing had changed. The Center for Constitutional Rights said the new administration "offers essentially the same definition of 'enemy combatant' without using the term." Friday's announcement arose as a result of last year's Supreme Court ruling that said Guantanamo prisoners could challenge their detention before a federal judge. Lawyers filed hundreds of petitions on their behalf.
Several federal judges were forced to decide what the Supreme Court left undecided: Who exactly can be held indefinitely as a prisoner in the war on terrorism? Is the definition limited to those who were terrorists and fighters who carried guns, or does it extend to civilians suspected of conspiring with al-Qaida?
In the 12-page legal memo sent to a judge Friday, the administration said it had tweaked the government's definition of who can be held without charges. The new definition says those who "substantially supported" al-Qaida or the Taliban can be held, regardless of where they were captured. The previous definition referred to those who gave "support" to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The president's lawyers said Congress gave the president the authority he needed when it passed the authorization for the use of military force one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It said the president can use the military against "nations, organizations or persons" who planned or aided the terrorist attacks.
Bush cited the same authority when he created the Guantanamo prison, but he also said he could act on his own as commander in chief.