Last updated: May 15, 2009 11:52 pm

Obama to revive military trials

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President Barack Obama on Friday announced that he would use military commissions to try some of the 240 prisoners detained at Guantánamo Bay, angering civil rights groups for the second time in a week.

During the presidential campaign, Mr Obama criticised the military commissions that George W. Bush created at Guantánamo to try prisoners captured in the “war on terror”. In explaining his decision on Friday, Mr Obama said the commissions would be restructured to give detainees more rights.

“Military commissions have a long tradition in the United States,” said Mr Obama. “They are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered.”

One major change with the existing commissions would be that evidence obtained by “cruel, inhuman and degrading” interrogation techniques would not be admissible. Mr Obama said the introduction of hearsay would be more limited, and detainees would have more flexibility to choose their own lawyer.

“These reforms will begin to restore the commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution,” said Mr Obama. “This is the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply-held values.”

Human rights groups that had welcomed Mr Obama’s campaign stance on the commissions and his January decision to close Guantánamo criticised the move. The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has filed legal cases on behalf of hundreds of detainees, said it was an “alarming development”.

“President Obama was elected to restore the rule of law, not continue to reinvent it,” the CCR said. “It will substantiate our allies’ ongoing loss of faith in the commitment of the United States to the rule of law, and undermine their willingness to help the Obama administration close Guantánamo.”

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticised Mr Obama for “backtracking dangerously on his reform agenda”, saying the commissions were “flawed beyond repair”.

“There is no good reason why the Guantánamo cases shouldn’t be tried in federal court,” said Mr Roth. “In the more than seven years since the military commissions were announced, only three suspects have been prosecuted. The federal courts, by contrast, have tried more than 145 terrorism cases during the same period.”

Mr Obama was condemned by civil rights advocates earlier this week when he reversed his previous decision to release hundreds of photos of US soldiers abusing detainees at detention facilities other than Abu Ghraib, the notorious Baghdad prison. Once again, however, Republicans welcomed his actions.

John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr Obama for the presidency, said he was “pleased” that Mr Obama had taken the decision. But he said other questions remained unresolved, including how the US will deal with detainees that cannot be tried but are considered too dangerous to be released.

“Today’s announcement is a step – but only a step – toward a comprehensive detainee policy that will deal with the detainees held at Guantánamo and elsewhere in a fashion that both accords with our values and protects our national security,” said Mr McCain, who was one of the harshest critics of the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies.

In January, Mr Obama ordered his team to create a plan to close the controversial US detention facility at Guantánamo within one year. Republicans, and some Democrats, have expressed strong reservations about transferring detainees to the US, the most likely scenario when the Cuba-based prison is closed.

Separately, the Central Intelligence Agency on Friday hit back at claims by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, that the spy agency lied to Congress during 2002 briefings about the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

“There is a long tradition in Washington of making political hay out of our business. It predates my service with this great institution, and it will be around long after I’m gone,” said Leon Panetta, CIA director. “But the political debates about interrogation reached a new decibel level yesterday [Thursday] when the CIA was accused of misleading Congress.”

Mr Panetta said CIA records showed that its officers had accurately informed members of Congress in the 2002 briefing about the “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

“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.’ Ultimately, it is up to Congress to evaluate all the evidence and reach its own conclusions about what happened,” said Mr Panetta.

On Thursday, Ms Pelosi accused the CIA of misleading her about the use of waterboarding in an effort to fend off Republican criticism that she had endorsed the technique, which she later criticised as torture. Asked at a tense press conference whether she was accusing the CIA of lying, she replied: ”Yes, misleading the Congress of the United States. I am.”

Ms Pelosi has taken flak since Barack Obama, US president, last month released ”torture memos” used by George W. Bush to legally justify harsh interrogations. Ms Pelosi called for a ”truth commission” to probe the treatment of detainees, but Republicans accuse her of hypocrisy, saying she never complained about the techniques when she was allegedly informed about their use during the 2002 briefing.

After the statement by Mr Panetta on Friday, however, Ms Pelosi made an effort to control the damage from her statements, saying she had “great respect” for the CIA employees.

“My criticism of the manner in which the Bush administration did not appropriately inform Congress is separate from my respect for those in the intelligence community who work to keep our country safe,” said Ms Pelosi.

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