Sunday, March 20, 2011

House Holds Hearing on Future of Gitmo Detainees

There has been a lot of debate over the use of Guantanamo Bay as a place to hold suspected terrorists because Obama promised during the 2008 campaign that he would close down the detention center. Once he was sworn into office, one of the first things he did was order a review to see how it could be shut down without endangering the public. Although the administration claims it’s still committed to closing Guantanamo Bay, it’s been over two years and there hasn’t been significant amount of progress towards that goal. In a hearing before the Armed Services Committee on Thursday, however, William Lynn (the Deputy Secretary of Defense) testified about some of the action that the Obama Administration is proposing while moving forward.

One of the first things that Lynn highlighted was that the Obama Administration has lifted the ban on military commissions for those being held. The commissions had been suspended when Obama took over the presidency so that the administration could have some time to evaluate the program and see how it wanted to move forward. To give a glimpse into the thinking of Obama and Defense officials on this move, Lynn testified that the Miliary Commissions Act of 2009 “incorporated a number of reforms, including a ban on the use of statements obtained through cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment… and an enhanced system for the handling of classified information.”

Despite these reforms and the decision to lift the ban on military commissions, Lynn made it clear that the Administration “disagrees with the restrictions that the Congress has imposed on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States for the purpose of prosecuting them in federal court.” He highlighted how Secretary Gates had previously pointed out that the federal court system has already proven to be an effective way of bringing terrorists to justice. In addition bringing terrorists to justice, trying some of the detainees in federal court is a way of showing that the American system is one that can be fair and balanced while still holding those who attack the US accountable.

While there appears to be a lot of desire among the administration to move forward on prosecutions, there also seems to be the realization that some of the detainees will never leave captivity even if they don’t receive a trial. Rep. Adam Smith even joked that Gitmo “is like Hotel California. You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” With this in mind, Obama singed Executive Order 13567, which provides for periodic reviews of the detainees who are likely to be held for an extremely long time. This process is in place to ensure that over time, all of the detentions are “carefully evaluated and justified.” While the review process won’t satisfy all civil liberties activists, it is a step in the direction of figuring out how to deal with the most dangerous people being held.

As there are growing calls for progress on bringing the detainees to justice in a respectable fashion, some of the Republican leaders are speaking out against the Administration’s position. Rep. Buck McKeon, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for instance, used his opening statement on Thursday to express concern “that by involving layers in the administrative review process, what is supposed to be an administrative evaluation of the threat posed by a detainee, will turn into yet another opportunity for layers to embroil our military in endless litigation.” This statement not only shows distain for any effort to ensure that the military isn’t unnecessarily holding detainees, but fits in with the GOP’s constant attacks on lawyers. During the debate surrounding health care reform, for instance, Republicans would frequently claim that it was lawyers filing frivolous lawsuits. In both situations, that tactic has caused a lot of people to believe the Republicans are simply trying to distract from the real issues at hand and blame a group of people (trial lawyers) who have a history of supporting Democrats.

What all of this means is that there appears to be some movement towards having trails for the detainees move forward, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to figure out the details of how everything will move forward. While I’d like to be optimistic about progress being made, we’ve seen so many broken promises from both sides of the aisle on this issue that I’m not confident we’ll see some positive action in the near future.

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