The president issued an executive order outlining the changes Monday afternoon, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates rescinded a January 2009 ban against bringing new charges against terror suspects in the military commissions.
“I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system — including Article III courts — to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened,” the president said in a written statement. Article III courts are civilian federal courts.
The White House said in a written statement that the tribunals are an “important tool in combating international terrorists.”
The decision was the latest signal that the prison camp will not close anytime soon, despite the president’s pledge when he took office to shutter the facility.
The White House noted that a number of reforms have been enacted to allow for military commissions to restart. The military courts would follow the “rule of law” and only be used “where it has been determined appropriate,” it said. The administration continued to stress the importance of using federal civilian courts when possible, saying they’ve delivered “swift justice and severe punishment to those who seek to attack us.”
“As the administration has long stated, it is essential that the government have the ability to use both military commissions and federal courts as tools to keep this country safe,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement.
The decision sparked immediate criticism from the ACLU.
“The best way to get America out of the Guantanamo morass is to use the most effective and reliable tool we have: our criminal justice system,” the organization said in a written statement. “Instead, the Obama administration has done just the opposite and chosen to institutionalize unlawful indefinite detention – creating a troubling ‘new normal’ — and to revive the illegitimate Guantanamo military commissions.”
The first trial likely to proceed under Obama’s new order would involve Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Al-Nashiri, a Saudi of Yemeni descent, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since 2006.
Closure of the facility has become untenable because of questions about where terror suspects would be held. Lawmakers object to their transfer to U.S. federal courts, and Gates recently told lawmakers that it has become very difficult to release detainees to other countries because Congress has made that process more complicated.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said he was pleased with Obama’s decision to restart the military commissions. But he said the administration must work with Congress to create a trial system that will stand up to judicial review.
A sweeping defense bill Obama signed in January blocked the use of Defense Department dollars to transfer Guantanamo suspects to U.S. soil for trial. The White House said Monday it would work to overturn that prohibition.