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Obama re-opens military tribunals, DOJ looks to federal courts

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

President Barack Obama said on March 7, he has instructed the Defense Department to lift an order that had suspended the filing of new charges in military tribunals at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, opening the door for more trials there.

President Obama had suspended trials at the base in early 2009.

In the wake of the announcement, the U.S. Department of Justice said it will continue to work to insure it can use both military commissions and federal civilian courts as tools to prosecute suspected terrorists, despite efforts in Congress to stop trials on U.S. soil.

"From the beginning of my administration, the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values," President Obama said in statement on March 7. "Today, I am announcing several steps that broaden our ability to bring terrorists to justice, provide oversight for our actions, and ensure the humane treatment of detainees.
"I strongly believe that the American system of justice is a key part of our arsenal in the war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, and we will continue to draw on all aspects of our justice system -- including Article III Courts [or civilian courts] -- to ensure that our security and our values are strengthened. Going forward, all branches of government have a responsibility to come together to forge a strong and durable approach to defend our nation and the values that define who we are as a nation," he added.

Although Obama’s March 7 order allows military tribunals, it is tempered with some changes.

Individuals subject to long-term detention will receive periodic reviews to ensure continued detention serves to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States. “If a final determination is made that a detainee no longer constitutes a significant threat to our security, the Executive Order provides that the Secretaries of State and Defense are to identify a suitable transfer location outside the United States, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and applicable law,” said a White House fact sheet on the order. “As the President has stated before, no Guantanamo detainee will be released into the United States,” it said.

While the Justice Department said in a March 7 statement that the resumption of military tribunals was “important” and strengthens the legal framework to detain possible alleged terrorists, it added it would continue to fight efforts in Congress to close civilian courts to terrorist trials.

“As the Administration has long stated, it is essential that the government have the ability to use both military commissions and federal courts as tools to keep this country safe,” it said. “Unfortunately, some in Congress have unwisely sought to undermine this process by imposing restrictions that challenge the Executive Branch’s ability to bring to justice terrorists who seek to do Americans harm.  We oppose those restrictions, and will continue to seek their repeal,” it said.