Gitmo trials better handled in federal court

Freedom New Mexico

The military commission or tribunal system developed by the Bush administration to deal with prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay has suffered yet another setback.

Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a prosecutor in the case of Muhammad Jawad, a 24-year-old accused of tossing a grenade into a military jeep in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2002, has resigned his position, “citing ethical concerns about his office’s failure to turn over exculpatory material” to defense attorneys, according to the Washington Post.

To be sure, there is dispute about exactly what has occurred in this case. Lt. Col. Vandeveld’s resignation letter did not offer details, and the chief prosecutor, Army Col. Lawrence Morris, assured reporters that “we are the most scrupulous organization you can imagine in terms of disclosure to the defense.”

But the incident points up some of the weaknesses in the military-commission system cobbled together in an effort to provide at least a modicum of due process to those who are detained. The administration has insisted they are not prisoners of war, a designation that would trigger certain safeguards in their treatment it did not want to afford them. Until the Supreme Court intervened, however, it had dragged its feet about actually charging them with some sort of crime and bringing them to trial.

To be sure, it is highly likely that many of those still detained at Guantanamo are vicious terrorists who would be likely to find ways to do harm to the United States, or its citizens or interests if released. Indeed, a few of those already released because the evidence against them was sketchy or nonexistent have done so. Another trial in its early stages is that of Khalid Sheik Muhammad, who has bragged he was the operational mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks.

But the very fact that the military has chosen to release some of the Guantanamo prisoners suggests that some of them are not as dangerous or as committed to jihad as widely advertised. The best way to sort through these matters is through fair trials.

It is possible the military commission system will yet prove a passable way to handle this task. But the fact that a number of military prosecutors have quit, while it may speak highly of the sense of integrity of certain military lawyers, suggests that the system is still far from perfect.

It’s not that the federal civilian courts are perfect instruments of justice, but at least they have not been disabled or prevented from operating by the “war on terror.” Perhaps it would be better if they handled the rest of the Guantanamo prisoners.