Tribunals to Return, Detainees to Have More Rights

By Carrie Johnson and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 15, 2009; 10:28 AM

President Obama is expected to announce today that he intends to keep military commissions to try some detainees at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but with greater legal protections for defendants, an administration official said last night.

The administration will also seek a second suspension of legal proceedings at Guantanamo so it can refine the system, the official said. Obama had received a 120-day suspension from military judges in January.

Obama's announcement will come a day after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assured Republican lawmakers that the Justice Department would not release any detainees whom he considered dangerous onto U.S. soil.

Holder, appearing at his first oversight hearing since taking office three months ago, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that no final determinations had been made about how to handle 241 men being held at Guantanamo Bay. "We're not going to do anything, anything that would put the American people at risk -- nothing," Holder said.

The fate of the detainees has become a topic of intensifying interest as the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline for closing the prison draws nearer. Officials have until January to shutter the facility, but federal judges hearing legal petitions from the men are growing weary of waiting for their release.

The fate of 17 Chinese Muslims from the Uighur community being held at Guantanamo is a particularly controversial issue because a federal judge and the Bush administration determined that they should be released, but officials have been unable to find a home for them.

"Believe me, I know better than anybody the clock is ticking," Holder said.

Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, demanded that the Justice Department share information about the risks posed by the detainees before any of them are moved.

Holder also faced questions about whether he will prosecute CIA agents, Justice Department lawyers or Bush administration officials for their role in developing an interrogation program that critics assert violated international treaties and anti-torture statutes.

He made clear that CIA employees who conducted interrogations following advice from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel would not face criminal prosecutions. But he did not close the door on the possibility of other cases, saying, "We would allow the law and the facts to take us wherever that was appropriate, and so as . . . facts become more evident, those are the kinds of things that obviously would go into that determination."

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) asked: "If detainees were tortured to death, is it possible that no one committed a crime?"

"If somebody were tortured to death," Holder replied, "clearly, a crime would have occurred."

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