President Obama this week formally reversed course on shutting the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, ordering the resumption of military trials of accused terrorists there. The decision ends a ban on such trials Obama ordered after taking office, when he promised to close Guantánamo within a year. Congress blocked that effort by refusing to fund the transfer of detainees to U.S. prisons. Obama’s new order creates a multiagency panel to periodically review the status of Guantánamo’s 172 detainees, but it does not require the release of those who no longer represent a threat. The president said he still wanted to close the prison and to try some detainees in U.S. civilian courts. “The American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al Qaida and its affiliates,” he said.
The administration is already preparing to try three detainees at Guantánamo, “possibly in days or weeks,” according to one official. But no plans have been announced to try admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, whose trial the Justice Department last year sought and failed to arrange in Manhattan.
With this “dismaying” order, Obama “is largely perpetuating the status quo,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. True, Guantánamo detainees now have more due-process protections than they had under President George W. Bush. But as long as the trials remain under military control, they “will be perceived as illegitimate throughout much of the world.”
America’s muddled approach to dealing with the Guantánamo detainees won’t get fixed until Congress and the president “put partisan politics aside,” said Glenn Sulmasy in National Review Online. They have to agree on “one system, one solution, and one venue for the detention, interrogation, and trial of al Qaida fighters.” Only then can the U.S. finally clear up “the ambiguities we have been mired in for the past eight years.” In fact, Obama seems to find those ambiguities “somewhat useful,” said Amy Davidson in NewYorkerâ€‹.com. Despite the “nice things” he said about American courts, his order seems less concerned with assuring fair trials than with safeguarding the presidential power to hold prisoners indefinitely without charges. Apparently he sees bringing accused murderers to court as a presidential “prerogative, rather than an obligation.”