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Don't Repackage Gitmo!

By Michael Ratner & Jules Lobel
This article appeared in the December 15, 2008 edition of The Nation.

President-elect Obama should be applauded for reiterating his promise to close the prison camp at Guantánamo. It has been a national embarrassment and a symbol of everything the Bush administration has done wrong in the "war on terror": detention without charges or trial, torture, and the establishment of military commissions in which handpicked military judges, not civil courts, try people on the basis of coerced evidence and hearsay. Shutting it down is important. However, we do not know what will be done with the 255 prisoners still detained there. Most of them will probably be sent back to their home countries, or else given asylum if it seems likely that repatriation will result in torture.

But what of others whom the Bush administration asserts cannot be released? And what will be the fate of any new detainees under the Obama administration? These questions should be answered as they have been for 200 years in this country: if there is sufficient evidence, charge them with crimes and have trials in federal courts; if not, release them.
Not much will have been accomplished if Guantánamo is shuttered while the practices that underlie it continue. Yet this is being suggested by some who may have Obama's ear. They argue that holding some terror suspects without trial or charges is necessary. A National Security Court composed of specially appointed judges without juries, using watered-down, minimal due process, would make the decisions.

Suggestions to repackage Guantánamo with a legal gloss must be rejected. Congress would in effect be legitimizing the long-term, perhaps lifelong, detention of people without charging or trying them in federal courts. It would be correctly perceived by the world as a continuation of Guantánamo, would undermine Obama's pledge to restore our moral standing and would weaken the foundation of one of our most precious civil liberties.

There is no evidence that holding people without charge and trial is necessary. Proponents of preventive detention claim that regular criminal trials cannot work, because the evidence is classified and may have been procured by torture. But classified information is dealt with in federal terrorism trials all the time, through the Classified Information Procedures Act. And evidence procured by torture is inherently unreliable and should never be used in any trial, in any court. A recent Human Rights First study by two former federal prosecutors of more than 120 terrorism trials found that the courts capably handled these cases without compromising national security or sacrificing due process. That conclusion is echoed by judges who have presided over terrorism trials, such as Judge John Coughenour, who conclu ded that the regular criminal courts are "an adequate venue for trying suspected terrorists" and that it would be "a grave error" to create "a parallel system of terrorism courts unmoored from the values that have served us so well for so long."

While the supposed advantages of a preventive detention scheme supervised by a special court using specially created rules are conjectural, the dangers of such a scheme are all too real. In the 1970s Britain established special "Diplock Courts" and administrative bodies to preventively detain and try Irish Republican Army suspects; the courts are now recognized as misguided efforts that undermined the liberty and fundamental rights not only of IRA suspects but of the British people themselves.

Shutting down Guantánamo is long overdue. We should not re-create it under another name.


Obama should prosecute Bush officials who designed torture policy
By Michael Ratner, December 3, 2008

One of Barack Obama’s first acts as president should be to instruct his attorney general to appoint an independent prosecutor to initiate a criminal investigation of former Bush Administration officials who gave the green light to torture.
At Obama’s press conference on Dec. 1, he spoke of upholding America’s highest values as he introduced Eric Holder as his choice for attorney general. Holder insisted there was no tension between protecting the people of the United States and adhering to our Constitution.

A few months ago, Holder was even more explicit. “Our government authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution,” he said. “We owe the American people a reckoning.”

The day of reckoning is fast upon us.

If Obama and Holder want to adhere to our Constitution and uphold our highest values, they must pursue those in the Bush Administration who violated that Constitution, broke our laws, and tarnished our values.

Read the words of Major Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal for the Pentagon. “There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes,” he concluded. “The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Despite Taguba’s words and reams of documentation supporting his statement, there has been little discussion about holding officials accountable for their design and implementation of the torture program.

We need to make it clear, just as we do in cases with the most minor offenses, that actions have consequences. To simply let those officials walk off the stage sends a message of impunity that will only encourage future law breaking. The message that we need to send is that they will be held accountable.

A popular refrain in Washington these days is that criminal prosecutions would be an unnecessary look backward. Some argue that in order for the new administration to move forward, presidential pardons should be granted and a Truth Commission assembled to investigate the circumstances that gave rise to the brutal interrogations and deaths of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites around the world.

But pardons would be the final refuge for an administration whose egregious violations of human rights have, for all too long, gone unpunished. And a Truth Commission is not applicable.

This is not Latin America; this is not South Africa. We are not trying to end a civil war, heal a wounded country and reconcile warring factions. We are a democracy trying to hold accountable officials that led our country down the road to torture. And in a democracy, it is the job of a prosecutor and not the pundits to determine whether crimes were committed.
Criminal prosecutions are not about looking to the past; they are about creating a future world without torture. They will be the mark of the new dawn of America’s leadership and our new era of accountability.

Prosecuting these officials would help the United States regain its moral standing in the world and to prove our commitment to upholding international human rights standards.
In his first nationally televised interview, President-elect Barack Obama made this promise: “I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm going to make sure that we don't torture.”

The best way to do that is to prosecute those who designed the torture policies.

Michael Ratner is president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and author of “The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book.” He can be reached at



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