From NBC's Athena Jones
President Obama today announced changes to the military commissions set up to try Guantanamo Bay detainees, saying he would bring them in line with the rule of law and make them a "legitimate forum for prosecution."
The administration also has requested additional continuances in nine pending military commission proceedings while it makes changes to the process. These proceedings were first continued in January, when Obama announced his plans to close the detention facility in a year.
In a statement, Obama said military commissions had a long tradition in the United States and -- if properly structured and administered -- they were appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, in addition to trials in so-called Article III courts, which are civilian federal courts.
The president's still-evolving Gitmo plans have come under fire from some lawmakers who want to know what the administration intends to do with prisoners who are released, including how and where they will be tried and held once they leave the island of Cuba. His support of military commissions, along with his decision earlier this week not to release photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also angered some on the left.
Obama is set to deliver a speech on Thursday addressing issues associated with Guantanamo Bay and anti-terror tactics, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today.
The president's statement included a justification for the use of a revamped military commissions system. "In 2006, I voted in favor of the use of military commissions," it read. "But I objected strongly to the Military Commissions Act that was drafted by the Bush administration and passed by Congress, because it failed to establish a legitimate legal framework and undermined our capability to ensure swift and certain justice against those detainees that we were holding at the time."
The Supreme Court struck down part of the Military Commissions Act in June, ruling that foreign detainees at Guantanamo Bay had the right to challenge their detention in federal courts.
The changes announced today include a ban on using statements obtained from detainees through "cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation methods"; limitations on the use of hearsay; greater latitude for the accused in choosing their lawyer; and basic protections for people who refuse to testify. Under the new rules, military commission judges would be able to establish the jurisdiction of their own courts.
The statement went on to say the Obama administration would work with Congress on "additional reforms" that will allow for effective prosecution of terrorists.
When pressed by reporters seeking to equate the Bush-era military tribunals with the new system Obama is seeking to establish, Gibbs argued there was little comparison. "This notion that somehow the law is the same under the protections that the president has entered into, I would simply point you to the opinion Justice [Anthony] Kennedy wrote in the Supreme Court case in 2007, denoting that that without the protections the president is enumerating to the court today those trials cant go forward," he said. "The notion that this is the same vehicle is simply not true."
During the campaign, then-candidate Obama spoke repeatedly of the need to close Guantanamo Bay, in part because of the damage it was doing to America's reputation.
"By any measure, our system of trying detainees has been an enormous failure," he said during a June 18 press conference in which he argued that only three suspected terrorists had been prosecuted since the system of military commissions was established at the detention facility."
"Meanwhile, this legal black hole has substantially set back America's ability to lead the world against the threat of terrorism, and undermined our most basic values," Obama went on to say during the June presser. "Make no mistake: we are less safe because of the way George Bush has handled this."
In a gaggle with reporters aboard his campaign plane a few days earlier, Obama explained one of the tenets of his worldview when it came to civil liberties and counterterrorism, saying "we can abide by due process and abide by basic concepts of rule of law and still crack down on terrorists."