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US Lawmakers Consider Guantanamo to be Both Prison and Courthouse

By Suzanne Presto
17 May 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama's decisions to continue using military commissions to try terrorism detainees and to set a deadline for the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has earned praise and criticism on the Sunday television talk shows, sometimes from unexpected corners.

Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties welcomed Mr. Obama's announcement that detainees would be tried by military-run courts, with some new legal protections in place for the prisoners.

The praise from both sides of the aisle comes as critics of Mr. Obama's announcement accuse him of breaking away from campaign promises of reform. Rights groups and some lawmakers, including Mr. Obama, lambasted the tribunals used during the Bush administration, saying they undermined the legal process.

Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia appeared to back away from his previous comments criticizing military tribunals when he appeared on Sunday's ABC Television program This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He explains why he now supports the tribunals.

"We need commissions like this because there are issues of evidence that you cannot take care of inside the regular American court system - classified information that might have an impact on how we collect intelligence and those sorts of things, and there are facilities built in Guantanamo right now that are able to do that," said Senator Webb.

It is impossible to talk about ways to try the roughly 240 detainees who remain at Guantanamo without discussing where they will go once the prison closes.

The situation is giving lawmakers pause. Some who want to see the facility closed, including Webb, question whether Mr. Obama's stated deadline to shut the prison by January is too hasty.

That is a sentiment echoed by Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, who appeared on the Fox Network television program Fox News Sunday.

"I think we ought to leave Guantanamo open," said Senator McConnell. "It's a $200-million, state-of-the-art facility. No one has ever escaped from there. It has courtrooms for the military commissions trials which the president has now - correctly in my view - decided maybe that's a good way to try these terrorists afterall."

Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona underscored that prisoners would be granted additional rights once the military tribunals begin operating again. Those changes, among others, include granting defendants greater choice in selecting counsel and barring statements obtained through harsh interrogation techniques.

Kyl said these reforms might appease critics of the previous tribunal system, but he suggested the changes could undermine the courts' efficiency. He addressed the amendments on the TV program This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

"This would liberalize it to some extent," said Senator Kyl. "We'll have to wait and see if it liberalizes it so much they don't work anymore."

But, even with the changes, the American Civil Liberties Union wants prisoners to be tried in criminal, not military, courts. Here is the group's executive director, Anthony Romero, from the CBS Television program Face the Nation.

"We have the capacity," said Anthony Romero. "We have the prisons that can hold them. We have the finest system of justice in the world. Let's use it. Let's not make a new one up."

It has not yet been announced which detainees might be tried in civilian courts and which will face the tribunals. Rights groups fear some may not be put on trial at all but still be held indefinitely.

President Obama will ask for a 120-day delay in nine pending cases while adjustments are made to the tribunal system.

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