In perhaps one of the biggest policy reversals of his presidency, President Obama on Monday signed an executive order that will create a formal system of indefinite detention for those held at the Guantanamo Bay facility who continue to pose a significant threat to national security. The administration also said it will reinstate military tribunals for detainees.
President Obama suspended tribunals and vowed in an executive order to close the detention center during his first days as president more than two years ago in order to, as he put it, “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism.” Yesterday’s announcements cement Guantanamo Bay’s continuing role in U.S. counterterrorism policy.
The Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the president’s views on prosecuting the war have completely changed. He reinstated military tribunals with reluctance after Congress blocked the transfer of Gitmo detainees to U.S. soil, leaving the administration with nowhere else to hold trials. In an information sheet yesterday, the administration emphasized its continuing support for civilian trials and said it will seek to repeal the law that prevents the transfer of detainees to the U.S. The White House also failed to clarify whether or not 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be tried in a military court.
While the president’s move is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. Declaring that his administration would no longer seek to try terrorists in the U.S. federal court system would illustrate that Obama truly understands the harsh reality of waging a war against non-state, terrorist actors. Civilian courts are no place for wartime enemies.