DOD: don't rule out civilian trials of detainees

AP News
Posted: Mar 17, 2011 5:39 PM

The Defense Department's general counsel on Thursday urged Congress to allow the Obama administration to use civilian courts as well as military commissions to prosecute detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Jeh Johnson said a Republican bill to virtually remove the civilian option would make it more likely that courts would step in when detainees challenge their detentions.

"Let's not take options away from the military and the national security apparatus. Let's not take away the Article 3 (civilian court) option," Johnson told the House Armed Services Committee.

President Barack Obama earlier this month ended a two-year moratorium on military trials for terror suspects. The administration said at the time that it must maintain the option of prosecuting alleged terrorists in federal courts.

Subsequently, Republicans in both houses introduced legislation demanding tougher restrictions for terror suspects. Republicans want to give the defense secretary rather than the attorney general final say on keeping a detainee in military custody.

The House bill, sponsored by Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. would limit legal representation for detainees and permanently block money to build or renovate a facility in the United States to house suspects now held at the U.S. prison in Cuba.

"I have some concerns about the breath of that language," Johnson said. He contended the administration is "moving in a good direction" with its detainee policy and cited court victories for the government in seven consecutive court challenges.

Rep. Adam Smith. D-Wash., the ranking minority member of the committee, contended the Republican bill "moves us in an even more dangerous direction" and called the military's powers under the plan "alarming."

"We need to have a legal framework in place that upholds our Constitution, upholds our values. It gives too much power to the executive branch and too much to the military," he said.

McKeon said the Obama plan would provide "another opportunity for lawyers to embroil the military in endless litigation. Something has to change."

He appealed for bipartisanship, saying the GOP bill only is the start of the debate. "We will have discussions. I do not want this to get on a partisan track," he said.

The White House has said Obama remains committed to eventually closing Guantanamo, but that goal appears more distant.