The Cable

Obama restarts trials at Gitmo

The White House announced a new policy on Monday for moving forward with the trials of some prisoners at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, while also setting forth a new process for keeping tabs on the prisoners who won't be tried or released anytime soon.

President Barack Obama's administration is framing the move as a continuation of its pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But by restarting new military commission trials and reforming the procedures to deal with prisoners who are set to remain there for years, the administration is implicitly acknowledging that the prison isn't being shuttered in the near future.

"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," Obama said in a statement. The new policy will be implemented through an order by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates allowing for the resumption of military tribunals, and an executive order that updates the process for reviewing the threat posed by prisoners at Guantanamo.

Five senior administration officials explained the details of the new policy in a conference call with reporters on Monday afternoon. They made the case that the president is still committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as he affirmed in his May 2009 speech at the National Archives.

"The President does remain committed to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, based on the judgment of our military commanders and our national security team that it hinders our security in the long run," a senior administration official said.

For those prisoners who the U.S. government is not prepared to prosecute but cannot be released due to concerns they still pose a threat, the administration is establishing a new "periodic review board," made up of representatives from the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, and Homeland Security, to assess whether each prisoner's detention "is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States." Every prisoner will receive a full review within one year of today and another full review every three years.

The new prisoner periodic review boards are an effort to reform the administrative review boards,  which have been used to judge whether prisoners should be held without trial up until now. However, it is still unclear how this policy will be implemented.

The administration contends that civilian courts could still be used for terror trials, but there are no definite plans to do so right now.

"We are reaffirming our commitment to Article III (civilian) courts as a fundamental tool of American justice and as a tool that the government has to bring terrorists to justice has been the case frequently in recent months and years," another senior administration official said.

In a related move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she asked the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to begin work to ratify Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which mandates stricter enforcement measures to guarantee the humane treatment of prisoners. She also announced that the United States will voluntarily adhere to the norms established under Article 75 of Protocol I in international armed conflicts, which also prohibits inhumane treatment of prisoners.

"These steps we take today are not about who our enemies are, but about who we are: a nation committed to providing all detainees in our custody with humane treatment," Clinton said in a statement.

Military law experts said that the Obama administration's moves represent progress in its efforts to break the legal logjam at Guantanamo Bay, but also an admission that the president's stated goal of quickly closing the prison will be again delayed.

The administration's decision to implement its new policy through executive order also bypassed efforts to involve Congress in the decision-making process.

Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the administration had promised to work with Congress to establish a new process for military commissions that updates the 2006 military commissions law, but now they've decided to simply push forward on their own.

"It's the beginning of a breaking of a paralysis that has been devastating for this administration on this subject," said Wittes. "But it's only a beginning and whether they break further free remains to be seen."

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The Cable

Gates mends ties with Karzai on unannounced trip to Kabul

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Kabul to fix strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai following the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys in a NATO airstrike last week.

"This breaks our heart," Gates said at a Monday press conference standing alongside Karzai. "Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people, whose security is our chief concern."

"I would also like to offer President Karzai my personal apology, because I know these tragedies weigh heavily on his heart and create problems for him as the leader and protector of the Afghan people," Gates said.

The United States still plans to transition to an Afghan lead on most operations and begin drawing down troops this summer, Gates said, as he gave a positive reading on the progress of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) efforts to more forcefully engage the Taliban ahead of that transition.

"The gains we are seeing across the country are significant," he added, noting that Karzai would soon announce the first areas that will be transferred to the control of the Afghan armed forces.

"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view, we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country," said Gates.

For his part, Karzai accepted Gates's apology for the accidental civilian deaths, which was significant because he had rejected a similar apology by Gen. David Petraeus only last week.

"Secretary Gates is an honored friend of Afghanistan. And I trust completely when he says he's sorry and he apologizes," Karzai said. "But while we take that apology with a lot of respect and agree with it to accept it today, I would request Secretary Gates that he take the plea of the Afghan people to Washington that these civilian casualties stop, and make the utmost effort so we don't have them anymore."

Gates also said that the U.S. government was prepared to keep some troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014, the scheduled date for the full transfer of territory to Afghan control. He said that if the Afghan government gives its permission, the United States would be interested in an ongoing security relationship in Afghanistan that could include keeping active some of the bases currently in use.

"The United States, I think, is open to the possibility of having some presence here in terms of training and assistance, perhaps making use of facilities made available to us by the Afghan government for those purposes," Gates said.

Also, an open microphone picked up a casual conversation between Gates and Petraeus where they joked about a possible military attack on Libya, ABC news reported.

"Welcome back, sir," Petraeus said to Gates when he arrived in Kabul.

"You returning to normal, you gonna launch some attacks on Libya or something?" Petreaus joked to Gates.

"Yeah, exactly," Gates joked back.

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