MAJOR UPDATE: THEY'RE BAAACK. . . .
Is President Obama planning to use highly criticized military courts to prosecute detainees at Guantanamo Bay? According to a New York Times article, he is.
Civil libertarians within Obama's liberal base passionately opposed the Bush administration's use of military tribunals to prosecute terrorism suspects. Also, the Supreme Court has ruled that Bush's commissions failed to offer sufficient procedural protections for defendants.
Obama campaigned against the use of military tribunals and boasted of his vote against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which attempted to divest certain Guantanamo Bay detainees of habeas corpus rights. The Supreme Court overruled those portions of the legislation in 2008 and specifically held that the alternative process for determining whether the government had adequate grounds to detain suspects was constitutionally defective.
Kinder, Gentler Military Tribunals?
Perhaps the Obama administration believes that it can clean up the military courts. But if he ultimately decides to opt for military tribunals, this would probably reflect a bare desire to win difficult terrorism cases and to avoid political fallout from holding the trials in federal courts.
A lot of the evidence against the terrorism suspects includes hearsay and statements extracted through torture or other coercive techniques. Federal rules of evidence would not permit the use of such materials, which would make prosecution difficult [Translation: would require the government to prove its case "beyond a reasonable doubt"].
Furthermore, the prosecution of terrorism suspects in federal courts would generate another round of criticism from conservatives and moderates who oppose the idea. Although federal courts have prosecuted numerous terrorism suspects in the past (with high conviction rates), the issue remains a political lightning rod.
Obama's Biggest Contradictions Occur in His Anti-Terrorism Policies
In terms of disappointing his base, Obama's biggest contradictions have occurred in his anti-terrorism policies. Bush's practices in this area generated massive political heat from liberals both domestically and abroad. Obama's election victories (especially in the Democratic primaries) occurred in large part because the Left believed that he would dramatically alter the state of affairs in this area.
Although Obama has taken formal steps that retreat from Bush's policies, the substantive differences are too small to measure. During his first week in office, Obama issued executive orders that call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year, the cessation of torture and the termination of CIA "black sites," or secret prison facilities where individuals face prolonged detention under poor conditions that likely involve torture.
But Obama has embraced many of the same positions that liberals and Obama himself criticized. For example:
* Obama and members of his administration have embraced the use of rendition. Many of Obama's most ardent defenders blasted progressives who criticized Obama on rendition as jumping the gun. Today, their arguments look even more problematic than in the past.
* Obama has invoked the maligned "state secrets" defense as a complete bar to lawsuits challenging potential human rights and constitutional law violations.
* Obama has argued that detainees at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan do not qualify for habeas corpus rights, even though many of the detainees at the facility were not captured in the war or in Afghanistan.
* Even though it no longer uses the phrase "enemy combatants," the Obama administration has taken the position that the government can indefinitely detain individuals, whether or not they engaged in torture and whether or not they fought the United States on the "battlefield." This logic combined with the denial of habeas to detainees in Afghanistan could make Bagram the functional equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
If the New York Times article is accurate, then the use of military tribunals issue will join the list of policies that Obama has endorsed, despite the loud liberal criticism that Bush received when he did the same things. It remains unclear, however, whether these contradictions will erode any of Obama's political support. Despite his blatant departure from some of the most important progressive issues that defined his campaign, liberals remain quite pleased with Obama's performance.
SEE RELATED COVERAGE:
They're Baaack. . . .
Glenn Greenwald has also covered many of these issues. He is one of the few progressives who has consistently adhered to progressive politics during the Obama-era.