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A Campaign Promise Dies: Obama and Military Commissions

At first it seemed Obama was on track to make good on his campaign promise of halting military commissions. Instead, he's reviving the same system he once abhorred.

The crowd at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, gathered to hear their candidate outline his grand strategy for a new way forward and Barack Obama delivered.

"I will reject a legal framework that does not work," Obama said, his words slightly drowned out by the loud applause that erupted. "There has been only one conviction at Guantanamo. It was for a guilty plea on material support for terrorism. The sentence was nine months. There has not been one conviction of a terrorist act. I have faith in America's courts, and I have faith in our [Judge Advocate Generals]."

"As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions," he continued. "Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists ... Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary."

That was three long years ago, when the world was led to believe that Hope and Change was more than just a campaign slogan. But the cracks in the façade began to surface just a month after the presidential election on November 4, 2008.

It was then that President-elect Obama convened a meeting at his transition headquarters in Chicago to discuss policies related to detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay. In attendance were Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who suffered a stinging defeat by the iconic Democratic challenger.

Obama is said to have told Graham, a former judge advocate general (JAG), that he needed his help shutting down Guantanamo and wanted him to enter into discussions with Rahm Emanuel, whom Obama tapped to be his chief of staff, about working on a bipartisan plan to turn that vision into a reality.

Emanuel and Graham did speak and the hard-charging, cutthroat political dealmaker soon realized that winning Graham's support as well the support of other Republicans to shutter Guantanamo would not be possible unless self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was prosecuted before discredited military commissions established by the Bush administration.

The military commissions were set up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. They were immediately discredited and challenged by civil liberties and human rights groups because they did not provide alleged terrorists with rights they would have received had they been prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or in a civilian courtroom. After Obama's speech at the Wilson Center in August 2007, two more detainees were prosecuted before military commissions, resulting in sentences of less than a year. Two of those former detainees have since been released.

Meanwhile, since 2001, more than 300 suspected terrorists were successfully tried and convicted in federal courts for their crimes, a fact that Republicans critical of using the civilian justice system refuse to acknowledge.

Emanuel communicated to Obama the risk associated with a civilian trial and underscored how it would likely amount to political suicide for Democrats.

But Attorney General Eric Holder argued in favor of civilian trials. It was unknown then, a time when the public was still enamored with the stunning electoral victory of the country's first African-American president who made grand promises to gut his predecessor's unlawful counterterrorism and national security policies, but Graham wielded enormous influence over the administration's proposed plans for prosecuting alleged terrorists detained at Guantanamo.


Just days after he was sworn into office, Obama issued an executive order halting the military commissions at Guantanamo while he set up a task force and ordered a review of the more than 200 cases there to determine who should face criminal prosecution as part of a larger effort to permanently close the facility by January 2010. It appeared Obama was on track to make good on one of his key campaign pledges - reject military commissions.

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