The Cable

U.S. Ambassador to NATO: No-fly zone wouldn't help much

NATO countries convened in Brussels on Monday to discuss the international response to the crisis in Libya but never discussed whether to impose a no-fly zone, according to the U.S. ambassador to the organization, Ivo Daalder. He seemed to play down the effectiveness of the measure, however, adding that a no-fly zone wouldn't protect most Libyans anyway.

Monday's meeting was held under the auspices of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's premier decision-making body. The discussions were focused on the humanitarian assistance efforts in Libya, and the United States raised a number of proposals on how to use NATO's military assets to speed food and medicine to the Libyan border areas. But neither the United States nor any other country brought up the idea of a no-fly zone, an idea that has attracted support from many in Congress.

"We're looking at the no-fly zone in a variety of different options. We haven't actually had a discussion yet. The military authorities haven't finalized that planning," said Daalder, in a conference call read out of the day's meetings.

But while Obama administration officials continue to insist the no-fly zone is on the table, Daalder expressed skepticism that such a move would be effective in stopping Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's crackdown on rebel forces. He noted that air attacks in Libya have declined since a peak late last week.

"[I]t's important to understand that no-fly zones...really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we've seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn't really going to impact what is happening there today," Daalder said. "And the kinds of capabilities that are being used to attack the rebel forces and, indeed, the population will be largely unaffected by a no-fly zone. "

But Daalder said that there would likely be enough information available to discuss the potential implementation of a no-fly zone by Thursday, when NATO defense ministers convene in Brussels. He also stated clearly that a new U.N. Security Council resolution would be needed to authorize a no-fly zone before one could be imposed, as far as the United States is concerned.

"Everyone would want a U.N. Security Council resolution. We would certainly seek one," he said. France and Britain are reportedly readying such a resolution now.

Back in Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney continued to downplay the idea that a no-fly zone was coming anytime soon. Referring to the outcome of the NATO meeting, he said, "I wouldn't characterize the likelihood of further options being pursued as greater now, but we have said from the beginning that those options were on the table, and none of them have been removed from the table."

The Feb. 26 U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya established an arms embargo on the country, which NATO countries have capabilities to support. But that didn't make it onto today's agenda in Brussels either, according to Daalder.

"On the issue of the arms embargo, we haven't yet had our first discussion of how NATO could help on this issue," he said.

NATO did decide on Monday to increase surveillance activities over Libya by its AWAC planes from 10 to 24 hours per day.

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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