Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bush Administration Left Gitmo Files A Mess, Complicating Center's Closing

President Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center have been complicated by the discovery that the files on its prisoners are in complete disarray, The Washington Post reports:

[Legal and national security officials] found that information on individual prisoners is "scattered throughout the executive branch," a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration's focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

Of course, the Bush administration, through the Military Commissions Act of 2006, denied habeas corpus, the right of a detainee to legally challenge his or her imprisonment. So why bother worrying about prosecutions when it's so much simpler to lock prisoners up and throw away the key?

They hit one snag, however: the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of habeas corpus is unconstitutional. Glenn Greenwald explained the historic and legal context of the Court's decision:

The Court's ruling was grounded in its recognition that the guarantee of habeas corpus was so central to the Founding that it was one of the few individual rights included in the Constitution even before the Bill of Rights was enacted. As the Court put it: "the Framers viewed freedom from unlawful restraint as a fundamental precept of liberty, and they understood the writ of habeas corpus as a vital instrument to secure that freedom." The Court noted that freedom from arbitrary or baseless imprisonment was one of the core rights established by the 13th Century Magna Carta, and it is the writ of habeas corpus which is the means for enforcing that right. Once habeas corpus is abolished -- as the Military Commissions Act sought to do -- then we return to the pre-Magna Carta days where the Government is free to imprison people with no recourse.

The Bush administration, in its incompetence and arrogance, didn't prepare for the possibility of this action by the Supreme Court. So what was their response to this stinging legal rebuke? The Washington Post continues:

Justice Department lawyers responding in federal courts to defense challenges over the past six months have said repeatedly that the government was overwhelmed by the sudden need to assemble material after Supreme Court rulings giving detainees habeas corpus and other rights.

It seems that the former administration handled crucial files on alleged international terrorists with the same care in which many teenagers maintain their rooms:

In a court filing this month, Darrel Vandeveld, a former military prosecutor at Guantanamo who asked to be relieved of his duties, said evidence was "strewn throughout the prosecution offices in desk drawers, bookcases packed with vaguely-labeled plastic containers, or even simply piled on the tops of desks."

He said he once accidentally found "crucial physical evidence" that "had been tossed in a locker located at Guantanamo and promptly forgotten."

It's all part of the monumental mess left behind by the Bush administration, both domestically and abroad, that the Obama administration has now been charged with cleaning up.

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