TOPICS > Politics

Obama Reverses Course on Gitmo, Allowing Detainee Military Trials to Resume

March 7, 2011 at 6:21 PM EDT
President Barack Obama issued an executive order Monday, reversing a two-year ban on military trials for suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Scott Shane of The New York Times for more on the administration's policy shift.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: The Obama administration reverses course on trials for suspected terrorists.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Closing down Guantanamo was a top priority for the new Obama administration two years ago. But it ran into repeated opposition over holding or trying terror suspects in the U.S. And, today, the president issued an order that will allow military trials to resume at that U.S. base on the tip of Cuba.

Here to tell us about is Scott Shane of The New York Times.

Scott, was this expected? Did the White House feel it had no choice, really, given the strong opposition?

SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: This has been speculated about in news reports. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise.

Since Congress has essentially banned the administration from bringing any of these 172 detainees left at Guantanamo to the United States for trial, the administration really had no choice but to — if it wanted to have trials, to renew military commissions down at the base in Cuba.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what’s the immediate impact? I understand there are 172 prisoners still held there. Is there any sense of when trials would resume and who might be first?

SCOTT SHANE: There’s no precise idea. And they didn’t say who would be first. Specifically, they wouldn’t say what will happen to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is, of course, the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama administration had wanted to bring him and his 9/11 co-defendants to the United States, to New York, actually, for a regular civilian criminal trial. But New York protested. And now they cannot be brought to the U.S. It’s unclear whether they will be just be held there or will go for military commissions.

There is another man named Nashiri, who is the accused plotter of the attack on the USS Cole, the destroyer attacked in Yemen in 2000. He is queued up for military commission and is likely to be one of the first people to go before a military commission, now that they’re starting up again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the president at the same time reaffirmed his desire to try terror suspects in federal courts, right? I mean, he’s resuming the trials at Guantanamo, but he’s still making his own position as clear as he can.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, that’s right.

The vast majority of terrorists who have been convicted, of course, since 9/11 have been in federal courts. I believe there are six convictions now in military commissions versus, you know, a couple hundred in federal courts.

But, at least for the moment, the 172 people in Guantanamo will stay there. And none of those guys will be available for federal trial.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this order also outlines some procedures for reviews of prisoners who — who are held without charge or trial to be reviewed at least every four years, right? Tell us about that.

SCOTT SHANE: Yes. Yes, I believe it’s that each one has to get — each detainee has to get a review within a year of today’s order. And then there has to be a review every three years after that.

And it’s by a group of — a panel made up not only of folks from the Defense Department, but representatives from State and Justice and other departments.

You know, in general, I would say that civil liberties advocates, who have, of course, been very critical of Guantanamo, said that at the — at the procedural level, this is an improvement compared to just letting people sit there forever without trial, but they still certainly object to the use of military commissions, as opposed to civilian trials, and to the ongoing use of Guantanamo, which, of course, President Obama had pledged to close in his first year in office.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, going to some of that, I mean, what — there was always these questions about these trials beforehand, what evidence was admissible, et cetera.

Anything — anything new on what we might see process-wise once these trials do resume?

SCOTT SHANE: There were some changes made in the procedures for military commissions by Congress in 2009.

And the combination of that with these periodic reviews that are required by the new executive order, I think, in general, legal authorities say that — that they have moved in the direction of an ordinary criminal trial, even if they’re not all the way there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, as you said, I think, in this order, the president reiterates his commitment to closing Guantanamo once again. But this certainly makes it seem as though that day is — is further away than ever, right?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, that’s right.

Part of the problem is that the largest remaining group of detainees is from Yemen. And, of course, Yemen is in turmoil. And they’re afraid to send anyone back there. And many countries, including countries that have been very critical of Guantanamo, have refused to take any of these detainees or have only taken tiny numbers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, he’s already getting some pushback from civil liberties groups and some allies. Senator Leahy put out a statement quickly, saying, this really is not good for civil — civil liberties.

SCOTT SHANE: That’s right.

I mean, I think people see it as a mixed bag, and they’re still studying it. But the underlying reality is that Guantanamo stays open, that some — some of the people there will be held indefinitely without trial. And others will face military commissions, which, even with the improvements, some civil libertarians don’t — don’t like.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott Shane of The New York Times, thanks very much.

SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.