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Guantanamo: Confessions and Questions

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
March 30, 2007

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A new chapter in the saga of the Guantanamo Bay detainees opened this March in rather unspectacular fashion. The first trial of an “enemy combatant” before a military commission at the controversial U.S. military base ended almost as soon as it began. David Hicks, an Australian accused of aiding al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, entered a guilty plea (BBC), preempting any lengthy legal proceedings.

Hicks’ trial was supposed to be a test run (AP) for the new military tribunal system established last year. Following a June Supreme Court ruling that the president did not have the authority to form special tribunals for detainees at Guantanamo, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, granting that authority. Noah Feldman, a legal expert and CFR adjunct fellow, expects more back and forth between Congress and the Supreme Court before the dust settles over the infamous prison camp.

Days before the Hicks trial, several other prominent Guantanamo inmates made their first appearance before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal; a smaller military commission charged with reviewing the detainees’ classification as enemy combatants. Chief among these was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, long believed to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In his boastful testimony (censored transcript, PDF), Mohammed claimed responsibility for 9/11, the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and more than two dozen other plots. Mohammed also claimed to be the victim of torture (The Age) before his transfer to Guantanamo in September.

Around the world, many believe that the circumstances of their detention render such confessions useless. Pearl’s family met Mohammed’s confession with some doubts (JPost). Britain’s relatively pro-American Telegraph says “the world will condemn the procedures by which the verdicts were reached.” Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes that Guantanamo’s affront to the rule of law is not only immoral, “it is also ineffective and in fact profoundly counterproductive.”  

While Mohammed awaits trial, which could happen in the next year, Hicks will serve his prison sentence in Australia (Australian), becoming one of more than four hundred detainees to leave U.S. custody in Guantanamo. But with roughly 385 detainees remaining, including a few new arrivals, the notorious prison camp appears likely to remain in operation (McClatchy) for some time. Justice for the detainees, says the New York Times, is “a work in progress.”

The New York Times recently reported that upon his arrival as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates lobbied his fellow cabinet members and the president to close Guantanamo. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who frequently gets an earful about Guantanamo when traveling abroad—sided with Gates. But President Bush, who last autumn expressed his desire to close the base, sided with Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who argued that alternatives to Guantanamo would prove even more troublesome. In an online debate, David B. Rivkin and Karen J. Greenberg, two legal experts, consider the proper way to deal with enemy combatants.

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