Obama Administration Reverses Decision to Try Terrorists In Civilian Courts
It now appears that circumstances will prevent President Obama from fulfilling two of his campaign promises. The military prison at Guantanamo Bay will remain open for holding enemy combatants and the U.S. government will pursue convictions of those charged with crimes of terrorism by military tribunals rather than in U.S. civilian courts.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the U.S. Department of Justice was scrapping its decision to hold the high-profile trial for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged conspirators just blocks from the World Trade Center. Instead, they are moving the venue to Guantanamo Bay, where the trial would be conducted by military commission rather than as a civilian trial. Holder and other administration officials said the policy reversal was due to congressional interference in executive counterterrorism efforts and “needless” drumming-up of controversy.
The earlier decision to try the 9/11 conspirators in New York City was largely unpopular and drew criticism by even the Democrat senators from New York. As a candidate for president, Barack Obama had made the closing of U.S. holding facility for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay one of the major tenets of his foreign policy. Obama argued that the ill will in the Arab world caused by the prison at Guantanamo made it impossible to improve relations with the Middle East. In addition, he believed that Guantanamo had become a recruiting tool used by terrorists.
As a result, he supported closing the facility. One of the first acts by President Obama was to announce that Guantanamo would be closed within a year. Two years into his presidency, that goal has run into the reality of the difficult nuances of pursuing the war on terror.
In January, the president signed the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011. One of the provisions of the act prohibits use of funds to transfer defendants from Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. Without the funding needed, the Obama administration was effectively blocked from trying the 9/11 conspirators in a U.S. civilian court. In a file dismissing the indictment of Mohammed and the four alleged conspirators sent to the southern district of New York on Monday morning, members of the U.S. Attorney’s office pointed to the act as the prohibitive restriction preventing a federal trial.
Those who support the decision of the Attorney General to conduct the trials as military tribunals point out that Congress and the Obama administration worked to improve the military commissions in 2009 and created a system that is fair and consistent with our values while ensuring the safety of American citizens and preserving classified information during wartime.
Was the decision by the Obama Justice Department to conduct the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators by military tribunal at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo an example of a “broken campaign promise,” or is it an executive policy dictated by events beyond the control of the Obama administration?