Determined to keep one of his best-known campaign promises, Barack Obama is already making plans to shut down the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Associated Press reports that the Obama Administration, on its first full day in office, has already began circulating a draft executive order on the detention facility. It calls for closing the prison camp within a year and in the interim, suspending military tribunals for terror suspects.
Closing the facility in Cuba “would further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice,” read the draft prepared for the president’s signature.
While some of the detainees currently held at Guantanamo would be released, others would be transferred elsewhere and later put on trial under terms to be determined.
It was not known when Obama intended to issue the order. He has been a longtime critic of the Bush administration’s decision to maintain the detention facility, which was opened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also unanswered are two, equally salient questions: First, what happens to those prisoners who "will be transferred elsewhere?" And secondly, how will those detainees be put on trail? (assuming that the Obama team scraps the current system of military tribunals)
With the closing of Guantanamo--and the end of military trials--it's a safe bet that remaining terrorist detainees will wind up in American prisons and the federal court system.
The most dangerous suspects may wind up at the federal SuperMax prison in Florence, Colorado. Several convicted terrorists are among the high-profile prisoners currently housed at the facility. They include the so-called "19th hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui; shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Ramzi Yousef, a key figure in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
But there won't be any Al Qaida reunion parties at the SuperMax. Inmates spend 23 hours a day inside their cells, leaving only for an exercise period in a room that's the size of two automobiles.
Unfortunately, the SuperMax can't hold all of the terror suspects who will be leaving Guantanamo. And so far, the Bureau of Prisons hasn't explained how it plans to incarcerate the accused terrorists, before, during and after their trials. With facilities already over crowded--and gang violence on the rise--prison officials aren't exactly enthused about housing dangerous terrorists in their institutions, and keeping them away from the general population.
Then, there's the matter of actually putting the suspects on trial. The Moussaoui case illustrates the problems with prosecuting terror suspects in a federal court. Mr. Moussaoui was captured by alert FBI agents before 9/11, and he was indicted only three months after the Al Qaida attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and rural Pennsylvania.
It would take another four years to convict and sentence Mr. Moussaoui. During the interim, he tried to make a mockery of his trial (and the U.S. justice system), changing his plea, hiring and firing attorneys and at one point, offered a psychiatric evaluation of the trial judge, Leonie Brinkema.
Now, multiply the "Moussaoui" effect by the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of terror defendants that will soon clog our courts in eastern district of Virginia and the southern district of Manhattan, where Al Qaida operatives committed their crimes. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys can block off their schedules for years at a stretch, while other legal matters are pushed to the back burner. The government will also spend millions for more security. The court houses where the trials are held will become terror targets, necessitating additional measures to keep the buildings--and their employees--safe.
To address those (and other concerns) a number of legal experts have suggested the creation of National Security Courts. Those forums would be staffed by judges and lawyers with expertise in a wide range of national security matters, from intelligence gathering to the prosecution of suspected terrorists.
Presumably, the security courts would be located in facilities that are less vulnerable than federal courthouses. Most of those latter structures are poorly equipped for important terrorism trials; due to security concerns, they often become armed fortresses with restricted access, slowing the resolution of other legal matters. Located in secure facilities--and with their specialized focus--the security courts would circumvent many of the problems associated with terrorist trials in federal district courts.
But creating that special court system would take time--well over a year--and President Obama hasn't voiced support for that concept. If he sticks to his timetable for shutting down Gitmo, we can expect a flood of terrorist detainees in federal prisons later this year, and exasperating "trails" that will stretch out into the next decade.
And that prospect is preferable to shutting down Guantanamo, and ending the military tribunal process? As Mr. Obama receives plaudits for his plan to shutter that "terrorist prison," he's about to discover that the devil's in the details. That surge of suspected terrorists is inching closer to our prison and courts system. Then what, Mr. President?