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Obama under fire for retaining Bush-era military tribunals

Saturday, May 16, 2009

First Published 2009-05-16


ACLU: 'striking blow to due process and the rule of law'

CIA rejects charge it deceived Congress on torture interrogations as rights groups hammer Obama.

WASHINGTON - Human rights groups reacted with anger and disappointment Friday to President Barack Obama's revival of special military trials of 'terror' suspects, saying the system was flawed beyond repair.
In announcing the return of the military commission system devised by former president George W. Bush, Obama also proposed reforms that he said would restore them "as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law."
But human rights organizations almost in unison called it a bad idea, insisting that even with changes the special military tribunals would provide substandard justice and meet with delays and legal challenges.
"The military commissions system is flawed beyond repair," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "By resurrecting this failed Bush administration idea, President Obama is backtracking dangerously on his reform agenda."
The American Civil Liberties Union called it "a striking blow to due process and the rule of law."
"Tweaking the rules of these failed tribunals so that they provide ‘more due process' is absurd," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. "There is no such thing as ‘due process light.'"
"In this case, President Obama would do well to remember his own infamous words during his presidential campaign: you can't put lipstick on a pig," he said.
Under the changes proposed by Obama, the use of evidence obtained through "cruel, inhumane and degrading" interrogation methods would no longer be admitted as evidence.
Hearsay would be allowed but the party offering it must now prove its reliability, rather than the party that objected to it.
The accused also would also have greater latitude in choosing a defense attorney and would enjoy greater protections if they refused to testify.
"Although the proposed changes to the commissions would be improvements, they do not address fundamental concerns about the flawed nature of such tribunals," Human Rights Watch said.
"The very purpose of the commissions was to permit trials that lacked the full due process protections available to defendants in federal courts," it said.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights group active in defending detainees at Guantanamo, said the commissions' revival was "an alarming development for those who expected that the Obama administration would end Bush administration’s dangerous experiments with our legal system."
"There is no reason to revive them now on the hope that piecemeal changes could create a legal system at Guantanamo equal to the US criminal justice or courts martial systems," he said.
Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a think tank, said US courts historically had proven their ability to handle the most difficult and sensitive cases.
"President Obama should have demonstrated a return to the rule of law by ending the tainted military commission proceedings," she said.
Only three Guantanamo convictions in seven years
Since 2001, 145 terrorism convictions have been handed down by US federal courts -- and only three in the US military commissions for detainees at the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison.
CIA rejects charge it deceived Congress
The CIA director on Friday strongly rejected accusations the agency had misled US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about alleged torture of detainees amid a political uproar over the conduct of the "war on terror."
"Let me be clear: It is not our policy or practice to mislead Congress. That is against our laws and our values," spy agency chief Leon Panetta said in a statement to Central Intelligence Agency employees.
Panetta said there was a "long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business," but he said "the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress."
The CIA statement came a day after Pelosi, President Barack Obama's top Democratic ally in the House of Representatives, charged the CIA had deceived her in 2002 about alleged torture of detainees during ex-president George W. Bush's administration.
At issue is when the California Democrat, who is now second in line for the presidency, found out that the CIA was using waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques."
Pelosi said the CIA briefed her just once, in September 2002, telling her only that Bush-era advisers had decided such practices were legal while assuring her that waterboarding, or simulated drowning, had not yet been used.
When informing members of Congress about interrogation methods used in the case of Abu Zubaydah, CIA officers told the truth, Panetta said, citing agency records of meetings.
"Our contemporaneous records from September 2002 indicate that CIA officers briefed truthfully on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, describing 'the enhanced techniques that had been employed,'" he said.
"Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened."
The CIA director, a former member of Congress who recently took over the agency after being appointed by Obama, advised employees to overlook the dispute, saying: "ignore the noise and stay focused on your mission.
"We have too much work to do to be distracted from our job of protecting this country."
Responding to Panetta's statement, Pelosi insisted her criticism was directed at how the previous administration informed Congress and not at CIA officers, who she said she held in "great respect."
"What is important now is to be united in our commitment to ensuring the security of our country; that, and how Congress exercises its oversight responsibilities, will continue to be my focus as we move forward," she said in a statement.
Pelosi has denied that her lack of formal objections to torture made her complicit in the abuse of detainees.
The House speaker has drawn Republican charges that she knew years ago about harsh techniques -- such as waterboarding -- that she now denounces as torture and wants formally investigated.
The finger-pointing is part of a wider debate about whether the Bush administration crossed legal and moral lines in its treatment of suspects after 2001.
In 2003, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Jane Harman, wrote a letter of protest about the treatment of detainees to the CIA -- a letter Pelosi says she agreed with, but did not sign, and she says she did not send a letter of her own.
"No letter or anything else was going to stop them from doing what they were going to do," she said Thursday. "My job was to change the majority in Congress and to fight to have a new president."
Pelosi and Republicans have urged the CIA to release the full details of briefings for lawmakers to clarify the dispute.
The CIA says detailed agency notes on briefings for lawmakers were available for review by qualified congressional staff.

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