Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Justice at Gitmo: An eyewitness account of the military commissions process

By Mike McNerney

Mike McNerney, a former U.S. Air Force officer, is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He recently visited the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. The following is a shorter version of an article originally published at Jurist.

Last month, the National Institute of Military Justice (NIMJ) gave me the opportunity to observe the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. As a veteran and a law student, they felt that I would be able to provide a unique perspective on the events. I joined the military in response to 9/11, so sitting in the same room as the self-professed terrorists who attacked our nation was a very emotional experience.

Watching the proceedings is intense, not so much for the law but for the courtroom dynamics. The military places visitors in an ante room separated from the main courtroom by double-pane soundproof glass. You can see the proceedings in real time but sound is delayed by 40 seconds in case the detainees say anything classified. The detainees themselves are free to converse with each other and often pass notes during the hearing. They obviously cooperate on strategy, stay up on current events, and make comments directed purely at the assembled media. They also refuse to cooperate with their counsel or medical personnel and make constant requests for irrelevant paperwork. This seems to be an attempt to undermine the proceedings of the military commissions and stands in stark contrast to the cooperation some have shown in their federal habeas corpus proceedings.

My experience at Guantanamo Bay ended when President Obama requested a continuance in all proceedings on the day of his inauguration. His administration now has 120 days to figure out what next steps, if any, it wants to take regarding the military commissions. President Obama should take this opportunity to create a policy that values national security but also balances justice, expediency, and sound legal structure. A more secure and stable system would better protect our citizens and improve our standing in the world. That way we can achieve justice for all Americans without sacrificing our values.

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