Obama backtracking on detainee rights, critics say
rights activists object to a focus on overseas prisons and arrests
without trials. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is weighing in.
By Julian E. Barnes and David S. Cloud
March 25, 2010
Reporting from Washington
newest option for detaining terrorism suspects -- an Afghan prison that
serves the same purpose as the lockup in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba --
suggests that President Obama's policies are becoming more like those
of his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the view of human rights groups
and legal experts.
Obama began his presidency vowing to close Guantanamo, end CIA
detention practices and transform the post-9/11 system created by Bush.
But the administration gradually has backtracked, and is now revisiting
some of the practices in use under Bush: military tribunals, detention
without trials and overseas prisons.
Human rights activists have objected to what they see as a trend in the
administration toward favoring long-term detention of terrorism
suspects and military commission proceedings rather than public court
trials. In the latest possible shift, administration officials said
last week that they may use a prison at the Bagram air base in
Afghanistan for long-term detainees captured elsewhere.
"That would be George Bush's wish list," Christopher Anders, the senior
legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the
possible policy changes.
The activists believe the administration is not unified on the issue,
saying that Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. believes the president should
stick to the positions he outlined during the campaign, while others,
including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, see the detention
issue more as a political problem.
The administration says no such divisions exist. The White House
believes it must compromise with lawmakers to preserve Obama's core
Other officials said that without somewhere to hold and question
terrorism suspects, capturing militants around the world becomes more
problematic. At least in the short term, these officials said, Bagram
could be used to hold extremists captured in other countries.
The proposal is controversial. Military officials, including the
top U.S. and allied commander in Afghanistan, argue that using the
prison for such detainees could complicate the war effort by providing
a propaganda weapon that extremists could use against the U.S.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading Republican voice on detainee
issues, said he considered concerns about Bagram legitimate, and
considered it an option only as a stop-gap measure until another
facility was ready.
"Bagram air base is not a long-term solution," Graham said in an
interview. "We're not going to be able to count on that facility . . .
it's a sovereign government that's not going to become enamored of
being the jailer for America."
Separate from the issue of Bagram, the administration is in talks with
Graham on a deal that would let the administration buy a state prison
in Thomson, Ill., to hold some of the detainees now at Guantanamo Bay.
Any proposal to move detainees to Thomson would require the approval of
Congress, which overwhelmingly approved a ban on transferring terrorism
suspects to the U.S. last year.
A deal with Graham is seen as a step that would allow some federal
trials for detainees to go forward, although maybe not for the most
prominent, such as alleged Sept. 11 organizer Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Holder announced in November that the Justice Department would
prosecute the Sept. 11 plotters in federal court in New York. But New
York city and state officials objected, and Republican lawmakers have
tried to block funding for the trials.
Graham is pushing for wider use of military commissions, the special
courts created under Bush that have been codified in U.S. law. Graham
also would like a new law to allow the indefinite detention of
terrorism suspects without trial, and changes in how detainees petition
the courts for release under federal habeas corpus guidelines.
"We need a statutory framework to deal with the problem," Graham said
in an interview.
Graham said he wanted to establish regular annual reviews for detainees
and create uniform standards for judges to use when deciding whether
suspects should be released.
"To have someone spend the rest of their life in a military prison is
OK with me," he said.
Few Republicans want to close Guantanamo, but Graham said that a
comprehensive deal between lawmakers and the White House that included
his proposals could attract broader support.
Administration officials acknowledged that they had discussed changes
in habeas corpus procedures with Graham, but said that no agreements
had been made.
"They are simply talking and looking for common ground," an
administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity
because officials were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
But even talks on detainee issues worry human rights advocates. Many
believe that any reform championed by Graham simply would be aimed at
gutting court oversight of those in long-term detention.
And human rights officials also question whether the South Carolina
senator can convince other Republicans to agree to shut down Guantanamo.
Opponents of Bush-era detainee practices hope that reports about White
House shifts on its detention policies are simply trial balloons that
the president himself will eventually pop.
"The policy of the Obama administration is that suspected terrorists
should be tried in civilian courts wherever possible," said Tom
Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "As
far as I am concerned, that is their policy, and it is not accurate or
fair to say Obama has embraced the policies of the Bush administration.
And I hope they don't."
2010 Los Angeles Times