The Future of the US Military Commissions: Legal and Policy Issues

The ongoing operation of the U.S. military commissions at Guantanamo Bay has posed significant challenges for multiple U.S. administrations.  Originally established by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 to try noncitizen terrorism suspects, the commissions have been plagued with a variety of problems.  Cases have languished, and no contested commission trials have become final, including the 9/11 case itself–for which a trial has not yet begun. (Military commission proceedings have resulted in 8 convictions pursuant to pleas, however).  Much of the law related to commissions remains unsettled and in dispute.  For example, it is unsettled precisely which crimes can be tried before the commissions.

Meanwhile, the commissions are operating against a backdrop of changing policies regarding the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  President Trump recently reversed the Obama Administration’s stated policy of closing the facility, where participants in the military commissions system are housed along with other terrorism detainees.  As of May 3, there are 40 detainees held at Guantanamo, 5 of whom have been deemed eligible for transfer to other countries. (They cannot be moved to the United States, due a legislative ban). Of the remainder, 9 have been charged within the commissions and are in proceedings at various stages, and 26 have neither been charged nor have been deemed eligible for transfer.  Although President Obama did not bring new detainees to Guantanamo, and President Trump has not done so to date, President Trump has stated in a recent Executive Order that “the United States may transport additional detainees to U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay when lawful and necessary to protect the Nation.”

To grapple with some of the tough legal and policy issues facing the military commissions moving forward, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security and the George Washington University Law School convened a diverse group of 24 national security law  experts at a Workshop on Dec. 7 of last year. The Workshop was not-for-attribution, but a Report summarizing the discussion at the event has now been made public on the ABA Standing Committee website.  As one would expect (and hope) from such a meeting, participants expressed a wide range of views, but there were also some key areas of consensus.  Here is a brief overview of the Report’s conclusions.

Overall approach to commissions moving forward: reform or repeal?

Workshop participants were divided on the wisdom of establishing the commissions in the first place–with some supportive of the goals underlying the military commissions and others critical of the entire endeavor as an unnecessary diversion from time-tested Article III courts and the regular military justice system.  Yet all agreed that

● The commissions are not working as intended; and

● The commissions should either be reformed or terminated.

Options for improving military commissions

The Workshop considered a variety of reforms to the commissions.  Although many participants did not think that the commissions should continue, participants identified a series of reforms that merit consideration and review, in particular

● Expand and/or clarify the role of the commissions’ Convening Authority using the authority and role of convening authorities within the U.S. military justice system as a model.

● Change and expand the eligibility rules for trial judges and change the current judicial pay and tenure structure to allow both civilian and military judges to hear commission cases (as opposed to the current rules, which permit only military judges to serve).

● Mitigate or minimize procedural and appellate delay by removing the death penalty as a sentencing option.

● Enhance or eliminate the role of the Court of Military Commissions Review. This is a part-time court, with judges paid by the hour, that hears cases of first impression, interlocutory appeals, and emergency writs without settled law.  A standing court could more expeditiously process these appeals.  Alternatively, disbanding the Court of Military Commissions Review in favor of direct appeal to the D.C. Circuit would more rapidly result in settled law and precedent.

● Review the classification and declassification procedures (which are necessary, but slow) for efficacy.

● Provide improved “clean” facilities for secure attorney-client communications.

● Establish a central and timely website and clearinghouse for commission filings and information to enhance transparency, public knowledge, and confidence in the commission’s proceedings.

Alternatives to commissions

Participants also considered alternatives to commissions, including prosecution

● In-theater before commissions or courts-martial;

● By host-government courts;

● By third-country courts;

● Before hybrid domestic-international courts;

● Within the U.S. military justice system; and

● Before Article III federal courts.

In addition, there was a notable degree of support for the following conclusions:

● Most participants expressed the view that U.S. national security and justice would be better served by trying terrorism cases in Article III courts, instead of before commissions as they are currently constituted.

● Many participants recommended that remote plea-bargaining before Article III judges via videoconference is an option that should be considered for Guantanamo detainees.

● There was consensus that the prohibition on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the United States should be repealed to afford the Executive Branch flexibility in addressing terrorism cases.

New Entrants

As indicated by the recent Executive Order, the possibility of bringing new detainees to Guantanamo, and potentially charging them in the military commissions system, is now an option.  Yet most participants agreed that bringing new entrants  into the current military commissions system would be problematic.  Specifically,

● Most participants—indeed, all but one—agreed that bringing new entrants not currently detained at Guantanamo, such as ISIS members, into the existing commissions system at Guantanamo Bay would compound existing challenges, such as those involving prosecutorial and appellate delay, cost, and both public and international credibility.

● Most participants also agreed that new entrants would also bring potential additional challenges, such as litigation addressed to detention authority under the existing 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the scope of the 2009 Military Commissions Act (MCA), the co-mingling of detainees, and/or the exact crimes with which the detainees are charged.

The “End of Conflict” and a New AUMF

Finally, participants identified a series of issues related to defining the “end of conflict” with respect to some or all of the conflicts during which detainees have been transferred and held at Guantanamo, as well as issues that could arise if there is a new authorization to use military force to provide clearer and more specific authority for the use of force against ISIS and other terrorist groups.  Specifically,

● Many participants expressed the view that the U.S. should better define what counts as the end of conflict and how the operations of jus post bellum should be carried out. Such definition could also encourage and facilitate the plea process, enhance the commissions’ credibility, and minimize the risk of inconsistent or adverse judicial or congressional definitions.

● There was consensus that, until and unless there is a declared “end of conflict,” the current Periodic Review Board process for detainees should continue. This process assesses whether continued law-of-war detention is necessary to protect against a significant threat to the security of the United States.

● Most participants agreed that a new AUMF would reduce the legal grounds for litigation challenging the President’s authority to detain new persons. However, participants could not agree on whether a new AUMF should include express detention authority and/or a sunset clause.

In sum, the Workshop Report offers a detailed, non-partisan, legal and policy analysis and recommendations with respect to the wide range of issues that currently face the Military Commissions and that will remain salient if the Trump Administration ultimately decides to expand the Commissions’ use.

 

Image: Legal Complex, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Photo by Pfc. Elizabeth Fournier Joint Task Force Guantanamo Public Affairs. 

About the Author(s)

James E. Baker

Robert E Wilhelm Fellow, MIT Center for International Studies (CIS); Chair, ABA Standing Committee on Law & National Security; former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Laura Dickinson

Former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2016-17) and Oswald Symister Colclough Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School