Topic A: Is Obama Betraying the Left on Detainee Photos and Military Tribunals?

Saturday, May 16, 2009; 12:00 AM

Yesterday President Obama announced he would maintain Bush-era military tribunals to try prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, and earlier this week he decided not to release photos allegedly depicting U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is Obama betraying the left? The Post asked Marc A. Thiessen, Kenneth Roth and Douglas E. Schoen.


Visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution; chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush

This week, President Obama saw firsthand how his liberal ideas directly conflict with his responsibilities as commander in chief. Thankfully he chose those responsibilities over the demands the left.

If he had released the detainee photos, they would been posted on jihadist websites within minutes, used by al Qaeda to incite terrorist attacks. Presented with this information, the president made the right call.

And if he had failed to allow military commissions to proceed, he would have betrayed the 9/11 families by denying them the justice they deserve. It is clear his administration discovered that its campaign rhetoric did not match the reality of what the Bush administration had established. The military commissions created by his predecessor in fact provide elaborate protections for defendants. So he is allowing them to proceed with cosmetic changes. The difference is, in the case of the photos he at least acknowledges that he is reversing course.


Executive director, Human Rights Watch

Obama is betraying America. He started off right, ending the "enhanced interrogation techniques" and announcing plans to close Guantanamo. As he said, "A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals."

His decisions this week betray that vision. In blocking the release of photographs depicting U.S. military personnel abusing detainees, he revived the Bush theory that the abuse was the work of only a few bad apples, all the while rejecting a truth commission to examine the senior officials who directed or authorized torture.

Proceeding with flawed military commissions to try Guantanamo detainees, meanwhile, will draw public attention to their unfairness rather than the horror of the alleged crimes. To convict someone of conspiracy to commit terrorism requires only proof of a criminal agreement between two of more people and one step, no matter how innocuous, to advance the plan. If the government can't meet that modest evidentiary standard, it should release the detainees. Railroading them to "justice" in substandard tribunals would be a gift to terrorist recruiters and undermine the international cooperation needed to combat terrorism.

The president once understood that. By abandoning his values and insights so quickly, he is selling himself and the nation short.


Democratic pollster and author

Rather than betraying the left, President Obama has effectively isolated it with his decision to continue to use military commissions to try alleged terrorists.

First he got Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to endorse his decision by acknowledging publicly that, "military commissions can play a legitimate role in prosecuting" detainees.

And by granting detainees additional legal protections beyond those offered by the Bush administration, Obama appears to have limited public criticism largely to interest groups and human rights groups such as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First.

Obama also obviously saw an opportunity to announce his decision when the liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- who could have been expected to be an outspoken opponent of his decision -- was clearly distracted. He announced his decision on a day during which CIA Director Leon Panetta defended the agency in the ongoing dispute about what Pelosi knew about waterboarding and when she knew it.

If the president is able to avoid serious and sustained criticism from the left for his decision to continue to employ military tribunals, he will be better able to deal with the equally thorny issue of how and when to close down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and what to do about the detainees still housed there.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company