Global Policy Forum

Pentagon Officials Consider


The Defense Department is looking into changing the military tribunals to give
terrorism suspects more rights. But it's unclear if any reform will happen.

By Tim Golden

New York Times
March 28, 2005

Battered by criticism from the federal court, foreign governments and human rights groups, the Defense Department is considering substantial changes to the special military tribunals that the Bush administration established to try foreign terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The proposed changes, many of which are contained in a 232-page draft manual for the tribunals that has been circulating among Pentagon lawyers, include strengthening the rights of defendants, establishing more independent judges to lead the panels and barring confessions obtained by torture, military and administration officials said.

The proposals have renewed a sharp debate within the administration between military lawyers and others who are pushing for the changes, and officials who have long insisted that terrorist suspects deserve fewer rights than other defendants.

Drafting the Reform

Military officials said the draft manual, which is modeled after the Manual for Courts-Martial, was written under the auspices of a retired military officer, Maj. Gen. John D. Altenburg Jr., who was in charge of the tribunals. The proposals gained momentum after high-level discussions late last year that included officials of the Pentagon and the White House counsel's office, and members of the National Security Council staff.

The proposals would generally move the tribunals -- formally known as military commissions -- more into line with the judicial standards applied to members of the U.S. military in traditional courts-martial, officials said. Many military lawyers have privately urged such a shift since President Bush first authorized the commissions after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The administration's willingness to revamp the commissions, which have been a central part of its strategy for fighting terrorism, is uncertain. Some officials said they considered the proposals premature, because a lawsuit challenging the legality of the commissions is now in a federal appeals court.

In addition, some of the White House aides who supported changes to the commissions have recently moved to new jobs, leaving behind a small but powerful group of officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff, who have opposed changing the commission rules unless forced to do so by the courts, officials said.

''There are a number of folks who would like to make changes,'' one Pentagon official said of the rules governing the military commissions. But the official added: ``Cheney is still driving a lot of this.''

Official Rebuff

At an interagency meeting this month on detainee policy, officials said, the State Department's designated legal advisor, John B. Bellinger III, who was formerly the legal advisor on the National Security Council staff, raised the question of possible modifications to the commission procedures and was quickly rebuffed by Cheney's counsel, David S. Addington. ''We don't need any changes in the commissions,'' the officials quoted Addington as saying.

A spokesman for Bellinger, who was traveling, declined to comment. A spokesman for the vice president's office did not respond to requests for comment on Addington's views. A spokeswoman for Altenburg, Lt. Susan McGarvey, said, ''We are always considering ways to improve the commissions process,'' but she declined to comment on the draft manual.

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