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Obama Lays Out Few Details for Closing Gitmo and Military Commissions

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May 21, 2009

We, along with other Americans concerned with the direction of President Obama’s approach to national security, watched with bated breath as he gave his much-anticipated speech this morning addressing national security issues including the closure of Guantánamo and the revival of the military commissions. Yesterday, human rights groups including the ACLU met with the president and members of his cabinet and expressed concerns about the president’s reported plans for indefinite detention for some terrorism suspects. While today’s speech was refreshing in its efforts to acknowledge the importance of the Constitution and the rule of law, we remain concerned about those issues.

Responding to the speech, Chris Anders, Senior Legislative Counsel for the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office stated:

Interestingly, President Obama gave his speech while standing within a few feet of the Constitution. He and Congress should keep that cherished document in mind when considering today’s proposals. You can’t square upholding the Constitution with pushing for a new military commission scheme that would allow people to be convicted based on coerced evidence and asking Congress to pass the nation’s first-ever law permitting the federal government to declare someone dangerous and imprison the person indefinitely without any criminal charges. Congress should reject that proposal.

Denny LeBoeuf, Director of the ACLU’s John Adams Project, assisting in the representation of capitally-charged detainees, said of the president’s plan to restart the military commissions:

The proposed changes to the military commissions are merely cosmetic and do not erase the spectacle of the Department of Defense presiding over trials where coerced statements and accusations by unnamed accusers are permitted, and where detainees are not permitted to speak about their torture at the hands of the CIA or the military. Military commissions unfairly deprive detainees of meaningful defense resources. This “due process light” is particularly indefensible in death penalty cases.

However, we can certainly agree with the president when he said:

We will not be safe if we see national security as a wedge that divides America — it can and must be a cause that unites us as one people, as one nation.

That wedge, which politicians — including former Vice President Dick Cheney — have been using to scare American into opposing President Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo, is dangerous. As we wrote before, it’s a slap in the face to our federal judiciary, not to mention those who staff and operate this nation’s maximum security prisons, to say that suspected terrorists cannot be incarcerated safely in America.

As the president pointed out, hundreds of convicted terrorists already reside in American jails, and no one has ever escaped from one of our federal maximum security prisons. Closing Guantánamo is key to restoring America’s standing in the world, as a beacon of justice and due process.

We were also encouraged when the president said:

I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability…Congress can review abuses of our values…[t]he Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.

You can support the ACLU’s call for accountability: sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding an independent prosecutor to investigate Bush-era criminal activity.

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