Saturday, May 16, 2009

Obama risks wrath of his liberal base.

I've been waiting for this announcement.

Risking the wrath of his liberal base, Barack Obama yesterday unveiled plans that will revive the Bush administration's military commissions to try terror suspects being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Although his plan will modify the tribunals in an effort to expand the legal rights of the defendants, the decision has already proved controversial. One of Mr Obama's first acts as President was to announce the closing of Guantanamo Bay within a year and the suspending of the tribunals which drew criticism around the world. As a candidate, he favoured turning to America's federal courts or the traditional military judicial system to try the cases.

But pressure has been building on Mr Obama to explain what he planned to do with the roughly 241 detainees at Guantanamo – and particularly how he would proceed with the 20-odd cases due to be handled under the commission system set up by an act of Congress in 2006. He remains squeezed by competing priorities: to repudiate the past Bush policies while not compromising national security.

His statement yesterday reflected that balance: "This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values," he said. And while acknowledging that he had "objected strongly" to the Bush approach, he insisted that military tribunals "are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war".

Obama campaigned against these military commissions and, whilst he might never have specifically promised to abandon them, he certainly gave the impression that the Bush style military commissions were an area of progressive anger which he understood and shared.

First, it is necessary to note that Obama is improving the rights of the defendants in these commissions, it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that this is obviously welcome.

The President is asking for changes that would give detainees greater leeway in choosing their own defence team, protect them from court prejudice if they refuse to testify, restrict the use of hearsay in the cases against them and would ban the introduction of all evidence gleaned through cruel or inhuman treatment.

However, at a time when Obama is attempting to improve America's image across the globe and restore the notion that the US is "a nation of laws" this comes across as a dreadful perversion of justice.

The most obvious improvement which Obama has made has been to say that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible. That's to be applauded. But I thought that was the main reason why some people couldn't be brought in front of a normal civilian court; because the evidence against them would be thrown out because of the methods which were used to obtain it.

If such evidence is not going to be relied upon anyway, then what's to stop bringing these people in front of a jury of their peers and letting that jury arrive at a decision regarding their innocence or guilt? I don't think that many American juries would feel safe releasing terrorists back into the community, so one could be sure that they would examine the evidence put in front of them with the most clinical eye.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming bulk of the objections to what the Bush administration did was to the very idea of military commission themselves. The controversy -- one of the most intense of the Bush era -- was grounded in the argument that there was absolutely no reason, other than to pervert justice and enable easy and due-process-free convictions, to create a separate tribunal rather than use our extant judicial processes.
This was my problem when Bush proposed this and this is my problem with Obama taking this stance, albeit with some small improvements.

I simply don't understand, and neither Obama nor anyone else seems able to explain to me, why these people can't simply be tried in a normal court of law.

Especially as one of the main reasons that they are held in Guantanamo Bay in the first place is because Bush insisted that they were not prisoners of war and that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to these men. If they are not prisoners of war then they are civilians, as Rumsfeld's famous phrase "enemy combatants" was one which he pulled out of his asshole. There is certainly no such term recognised under international law. Indeed, Rumsfeld invented this status as a way to deny these men both civilian status and the rights of a normal POW. It's distressing in the extreme to see Obama apparently continue this practice.

One of the main problems with these military commissions is enunciated here by Tom Fleener and William Kuebler, two military lawyers working at Guantanamo, who had the task of defending Guantanamo detainees:
Fleener added, “I hated the fact, still hate the fact, that we were making up a trial system to convict people after we’d already decided they’re guilty. I hated that, as a country, we were doing that. I didn’t like the fact that we were violating the rule of law, and that what we were doing as a country was just … wrong.” Kuebler reached a similar conclusion. “It took me a while to figure out the system is rigged,” he told Flynn. “When it hit me how ridiculous and unjust and farcical this is? That was it. That was the moment I realized it was all a sham.”
That's my problem with this and that's where, no matter how many times Obama tries to improve the rights of the prisoners tried under this system, Obama is actually violating his own wish to restore the image of the US across the globe: This looks RIGGED. This will do NOTHING to restore the US's image in the world and will, in fact, cause the kind of outrage which Obama was elected promising to subdue.

It looks, as Fleener stated, as if this system is being constructed to arrive at a pre-ordained conclusion. It looks like the US has decided these men are guilty and is building a system for trying them which will bring in that desired verdict.

This, like Obama's failure so far to investigate the Bush regime's war crimes, makes a mockery of his claim that the US is, "a nation of laws".

If Obama or anyone else could tell me why these men cannot be tried in front of a jury of their peers, I would listen with an open mind, but I have never heard any reason given so far which doesn't come down to the fact that they might be found not guilty and they might "get away".

And without a chance that the accused might "get away", the system being applied can be called many things, but you can't call it justice.


A quick observation from across the pond regarding how this story reveals the myth of the US "Liberal media".

I notice that Obama is always applauded when he resists his base and that this is portrayed as showing that he is, indeed, "a moderate". However, whenever the Bush regime veered towards the right, this was always explained by insisting that he had to, "appease the base".

So the base of the Democratic party are always to be resisted and this shows great courage, and the base of the Republican party are always to be appeased and this shows great sense.

And this is the mindset of a "Liberal media"? That's a joke surely?


Rachel Maddow's take on this.


The right wing are cock-a-hoop over this.

The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page today:

President Obama's endorsements of Bush-Cheney antiterror policies are by now routine . . . . Mr. Obama deserves credit for accepting that the civilian courts are largely unsuited for the realities of the war on terror. He has now decided to preserve a tribunal process that will be identical in every material way to the one favored by Dick Cheney . . . Meanwhile, friends should keep certain newspaper editors away from sharp objects. Their champion has repudiated them once again.

No-one supported Obama louder than I did, but, when it comes to civil liberties, I can no longer pretend to myself that he's cutting the mustard. The reason the right wingers are celebrating is because he is embracing positions which will "be identical in every material way" to the policies of Dick Cheney.

Why do we even bother pretending to ourselves that there is any chance that he is going to prosecute Bush and the other war criminals? There's nothing he has done so far which even gives one the faintest hope that he's serious about what he says. The US is, "a nation of laws"? On this evidence that claim is simply palpably false.

Click title for full article.


Steel Phoenix said...

This whole thing stinks. I hate to say it, but I think I might have done exactly the same thing in his shoes. Bringing these cases into our conventional court system would have turned this into a circus. We would have just ended up releasing everyone because of the complete lack of justice they have gotten from the point of detention onwards. If they stick to the assurance that nothing gained under torture is admissible it goes a long way towards easing my mind, but I also think it leaves plenty of room for abuse. It really comes down to faith in those who are in charge, which for me is shaky at the moment.

What do we do with someone we picked up on the street, stripped, cuffed, drugged and flew to Gitmo, tortured, and who later gave us enough verifiable information to prove they were indeed a terrorist? I'd be torn between letting them go, because what is one more terrorist among millions, and because holding them damages the core of our justice system, or locking them down because they are serial killers who will strike innocents again. Maybe we ought to just bundle all the more legitimate claims we have against each and hand them and the info over to their home countries.

Kel said...

SP, I completely understand the dilemma which Bush's actions have placed Obama in and I actually think your idea of handing them - and the evidence - back to their country of origin is a better one that military commissions.

The problem with the commissions is that, because they look so rigged, no-one will accept a guilty verdict as being conclusive.

And Obama's rebranding of the US as something different and superior to the US of Bush has been dealt a dreadful blow.