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Obama to Revamp Military Tribunals

Stance Is Reversal on Trials for Detainees

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President Barack Obama on Friday restarted a Bush-era military trial system for a small number of Guantanamo detainees, reviving a method of prosecution he once assailed as flawed but with new legal protections for terror suspects. Video by AP
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 16, 2009

As a candidate for president, Barack Obama offered himself as a clear alternative to Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. Governing has proven muddier.

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Yesterday, President Obama announced that he will revamp, rather than reject, the system of military tribunals that President George W. Bush created to try terrorism suspects. Earlier in the week, Obama indicated that he will fight the release of photos depicting alleged abuse of detainees during Bush's tenure.

The reaction has been fierce. The American Civil Liberties Union accused the president of "stonewalling tactics and opaque policies" after the photo decision. And yesterday, the group threw Obama's words from the campaign back at him: "You can't put lipstick on a pig," it said of his efforts to revamp the commissions. Human rights groups vowed to fight Obama in court.

Early moves to ban torture and shutter the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- decisions hailed by human rights groups here and abroad -- have been followed by other moves that have left many of Obama's ardent supporters disappointed and angry.

Obama has backed Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, expanded the war in Afghanistan and opposed prosecution of those involved in what some call torture of detainees -- a refusal that continues to echo as the country debates the effectiveness of past interrogations.

Yesterday's announcement was a unmistakable reversal for a man who, as a candidate, had promised to shelve the military commissions and called their use under Bush an "enormous failure."

"I have faith in America's courts," Obama said Aug. 7. "I have faith in our JAGs. As president, I'll close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists."

His message in reversing his stance yesterday was more muted. "Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States," Obama said in a statement. "They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered."

Top Obama aides insist that the president is staying true to his principles by ending torture, winding down the Iraq war and closing Guantanamo. But they describe as "excruciating" the weight of the responsibility that he feels to keep the country safe.

"The president has made some enormous strides in changing the direction of our policies," senior adviser David Axelrod said. "But implementing them has its challenges, because you constantly have to balance equities and responsibilities and make decisions that are in the best interest of the country's security in a way that's consistent with our values."

Inside the administration, the debate over the military commissions was rigorous, with Obama eventually siding with the generals and other military officials who feared that bringing some detainees before regular courts would present enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.

That argument, presented to Obama by his top national security aides, prevailed over Justice Department prosecutors' assertions that federal courts or long-established military courts-martial could ensure the swift and successful prosecution of captured terrorism suspects, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


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