Obama Restarts Bush-Era Military Tribunals

Obama said he will seek more time to reform the military commission process.


Just a day after President Barack Obama generated backlash by deciding not to release photographs of detainee abuse, he has decided to restart Bush-era military tribunals. That reverses a decision he made in his first week of office, when he signed an executive order halting the tribunals and ordered a 120-day review process.

That review is due next week. But Obama said in a statement today that "we will seek more time to allow us time to reform the military commission process." His opposition, he said in the statement, had not been to military tribunals per se. His objection was to the Bush administration's Military Commissions Act, which he said "failed to establish a legitimate legal framework and undermined our capability to ensure swift and certain justice." Only three suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay were prosecuted in more than seven years.

For that reason, even as Obama rolls back his previous halt on military tribunals, he is also expanding legal protections for detainees that, he said, would restore the commissions as "a legitimate forum for prosecution." "Statements that have been obtained from detainees using cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogation methods will no longer be admitted as evidence at trial," Obama said. That's expected to include waterboarding. There also will be restrictions on the use of hearsay evidence in court. In addition, detainees will have greater choice in their military counsel, and those who refuse to testify will be given basic protections.

Even so, the announcement is upsetting to human rights organizations and others on the left who were already reeling from his reversal on detainee photographs. Less than three weeks ago, the Obama administration said it wouldn't oppose the court-ordered release of more than 40 photos showing mistreatment of detainees in Army custody. On Thursday, however, Obama announced that he was reversing his policy. Although the photos "are not particularly sensational," the president said, "they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual" and "the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger." Critics have attacked the move as a sign that his administration is disregarding its own promises of transparency and accountability.

Now, he has added more fuel to the fire. And as Obama continues to find his campaign promises tested by both the demands of national security and by pressures from both sides of the aisle, these kinds of controversies may become a more common occurrence.