President Barack Obama is to announce this week that he is reviving controversial military trials for terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, US officials said.
But Obama, who sharply criticized the use of military commissions to try extremists under his predecessor George W. Bush, may ask lawmakers to expand legal protections for detainees, the officials said Tuesday, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Obama is scheduled to meet in the Oval Office Wednesday with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Senator Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the panel, in addition to congressional leadership.
The president could push Congress, which created the military commissions in 2006, to curb the use of hearsay evidence, ban coerced testimony and allow suspects to choose their defense counsel, one source said.
The move would affect, among others, five detainees charged with having played key roles in the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, including the plot’s self-proclaimed mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Republicans have fiercely assailed Obama’s order to close the detention facility at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by late January next year, and Democrats have rejected a White House funding request to shutter the prison.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, said military commission trials would only be acceptable under revised rules expanding defendants’ legal protections and that Obama may act quickly.
"My hunch — it’s more than a hunch — I believe there’ll be something happening on that fairly soon," Levin told reporters.
The Guantanamo prison camp, synonymous around the world with US "war on terror" excesses, still holds 241 inmates from 30 different countries, according to the Pentagon.
For weeks, Republicans have attacked Obama for ordering the facility’s closure and the suspension of military commissions, saying the president did not have a plan for what to do with the prisoners.
Republican Senator John McCain, who spearheaded legislation creating the commissions, said such trials were the only adequate venue for trying suspected terrorists and that he was working with the White House on a way forward.
"They’ve dug themselves a deep hole" on Guantanamo, McCain said.
"They made a significant error by announcing, with great fanfare, the closing of Guantanamo without a comprehensive plan to address the issue of enemy combatants, the return of people to countries that they came from, the whole issue of where you hold people if you close Guantanamo."
Senator Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called closing Guantanamo "one of the most blatantly stupid decisions I’ve ever seen," and called for reviving the military commission system.
But that, according to Jon Jackson, a military lawyer representing 9/11 suspect Mustafa al-Hawsawi, would be "choosing the easy wrong over the hard right."
"The commissions are easy for the president because they are already set up, but they are the wrong thing to do because no matter how they try to change the rules, the military commissions are tarnished and cannot be fixed," he told AFP.
"The hard right thing to do is to prosecute these individuals in a regularly constituted court, such as the federal court or a court martial."
Some experts argue that the harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, or simulated drowning — which Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder have called torture — used on high-value terror suspects could render evidence obtained from such suspects inadmissible in a federal court.
US Department of Justice memos released in April revealed that Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month.
"The Obama administration shouldn’t tinker with a fundamentally flawed system," said Human Rights Watch (HRW) counterterrorism adviser Stacy Sullivan. "Reviving the military commissions would strip much of the meaning from closing Guantanamo."
Tom Parker of Amnesty International said the president would be making "a disastrous misstep" if he revived the commissions after blasting them as "an enormous failure" on the campaign trail last year.