Human Rights Groups Still Hopeful on Military Commissions

| Mon May 18, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

The Obama administration infuriated liberals and civil libertarians last Friday by extending the Bush administration's military commissions for terrorism suspects. But on Monday, when top officials from human rights organizations met with the Obama administration task force charged with rethinking detainee treatment, they heard a different message about the administration's ultimate plans for the tribunals.

In a conference call with reporters following the sit-down, Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, said that officials from the Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition told him that the administration's announcement on Friday was only prompted by the fact that it was bumping up against the 120-day suspension of the commissions that Obama ordered in January. According to Rona, administration officials worried that if they didn't act before the deadline passed, they could lose the option to use the commissions. To prevent that from happening, Rona explained, the White House will notify Congress of its proposed changes and seek another four-month delay in the proceedings that are already underway. Later, Rona told Mother Jones that he doubted the task force officials would have sought the input of the human rights groups—or tried to feed them the deadline excuse—if revised commissions were already "a fait accompli." "The administration was testing the water" on Friday, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who also attended the meeting. "I don't know how surprised it was by the outrage that resulted."

The Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition was created by executive order in January. Its report, which will "identify options" for changing detainee treatment, is due in late July. Roth said the task force seemed to be weighing whether to "stick with ordinary courts or move towards commissions. A "national security court," proposed by some law professors, "didn't seem to be the direction things were going," he said. According to Roth, the task force worries that trying terrorism suspects in ordinary courts might allow suspects to claim that they had Miranda rights that had been violated or to demand access to classified information used by the prosecution.

It's possible that the human rights officials are engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that Obama's decision on military tribunals is not as firm as it seems. In a statement on Friday, Obama said that (reformed) commissions are "the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values." That doesn't leave the White House much wiggle room.

Until last Friday, press secretary Robert Gibbs countered questions about detainee treatment by claiming that he didn't want to prejudge the reports of various commissions and task forces, including the interagency group. "I think what's best is to let that happen and see what happens when they come back," Gibbs said on January 22. On February 23, Gibbs deflected a question by referring to the "ongoing" process of "evaluating the detainees" at Guantanamo Bay. On May 5, he said it "wouldn't be wise to prejudge the review [of military tribunals] the president laid out." But on Friday, Obama announced his decision. The deadline for the completion of the review that was once so crucial was still more than two months away. So far, the White House has not publicly explained why it rendered a decision before the task force finished its work.

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