The Pentagon is poised to rescind last year's order halting military-commission cases, a final legal step as it gears up to try accused terrorists. But there's an awkward hitch: the new trials will be held in the $12 million, high-tech courtroom at Guantánamo Bay, which will refocus the world's attention on the very prison President Obama pledged to close. "As of right now, we don't have the money or the authority" to hold the trials elsewhere, says a senior Pentagon official who asked not to be identified talking about a politically sensitive subject.
Privately, Pentagon officials are nervous about the prospect of the world press assembling again at Gitmo to observe detainees in military trials. This is especially so because the debut trial this summer is scheduled to be for Omar Khadr, the "boy soldier." Khadr is accused of lobbing a hand grenade that killed an American soldier in Afghanistan when he was 15, and he's become a cause célèbre among human-rights groups that protest against prosecuting minors for war crimes. (Pentagon officials are hoping to avert the trial by negotiating a plea bargain or repatriating him to his native Canada.) But pretrial hearings begin in a few weeks, and the Pentagon has plans to fly a planeload of reporters to Gitmo for the proceedings, says commission spokesman Joe DellaVedova. Once they begin, "it's going to be really difficult to explain how anything has changed from what was going on under Bush," says a top military prosecutor who asked not to be named for the same reasons.
On Jan. 20, 2009, the day of Obama's inauguration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed an order stopping all new military-commission cases, giving the administration a chance to sort out how it would handle Gitmo's detainee population (then about 240, now 183). At the time, military-commission trials were seen as a less likely alternative because Obama had attacked them during the campaign. Since then, however, Congress has passed a new law--signed by Obama--aimed at making the proceedings fairer. And last week Gates named retired Adm. Bruce MacDonald, who helped craft the new law, as the "convening authority" to oversee the commissions. Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union, aren't satisfied, saying the trials still allow for hearsay evidence that wouldn't be OK in a civilian court.
Obama has yet to decide if he'll overrule Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and order the highest-profile Gitmo detainee, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, tried by a military commission. But military prosecutors are working on as many as 30 new cases, and the Pentagon's directive rescinding Gates's halt order is expected to be signed in the next few weeks. "It's full steam ahead," says the military prosecutor.