In a move that could reignite tensions with liberals in his own party, President Obama is planning on Friday to resume the Bush administration’s highly controversial military tribunal system — which Obama suspended his first week in office — for some Guantanamo detainees, according to three administration officials.
Some of the high-profile terror suspects who are being charged in the tribunal process include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The administration officials stressed that the updated system will include expanded due-process rights for the suspects, which administration officials note is consistent with what Obama pushed for as a senator in 2006 in order to improve upon the widely criticized approach created by the Bush administration. But those enhancements are not likely to calm the concerns of liberal groups, led by the ACLU, which are already furious about Obama’s shift this week to block the release of photos showing prisoners allegedly being abused by U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, called the expected new approach on military tribunals “fatally flawed” despite the changes. “The military commissions are built on unconstitutional premises and designed to ensure convictions, not provide fair trials,” Romero said in a prepared statement released earlier this week after speculation about the restart of military tribunals surfaced. “Reducing some but not all of the flaws of the tribunals so that they are ‘less offensive’ is not acceptable; there is no such thing as ‘due process light.’ ” Two of the administration officials said the president will also leave open the option of starting civilian trials on U.S. soil for some of the detainees. But that, too, is a fiercely debated issue on Capitol Hill because of concerns by lawmakers in both parties about where the terror suspects will be kept during such trials.
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Obama suspended the tribunals by signing an executive order on his third day in office, the same day he signed an order closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, and said his administration would conduct a 120-day review of the process. That review comes due next week. “The message that we are sending around the world is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism,” Obama said on January 22. “And we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals.” Eager to head off criticism from liberals, administration officials note that during the 2006 Senate debate over the Military Commissions Act, Obama called the Bush administration’s approach “sloppy” and pushed for another version of the legislation with enhanced rights for detainees. “Instead, we have rushed through a bill that stands a good chance of being challenged once again in the Supreme Court,” Obama said on the Senate floor on September, 28, 2006. “This is not how a serious administration would approach the problem of terrorism.”