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Federal Civilian Courts for GTMO Detainees?

Just got off a conference call with Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU’s Washington office. Fredrickson and a number of civil-libertarian and national-security colleagues met yesterday with members of the Obama transition’s Justice and Pentagon agency review teams to discuss the modalities of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. And she came away from the 90-minute meeting thinking that the transition reacted positively to the coalition’s arguments for trying Guantanamo detainees in civilian courts.

“They did not want to talk about national security courts,” Fredrickson said, referring to a proposal to create special courts for terrorism cases with lax standards of evidence and process compared to regular civilian courts, considering it “a good sign.” Instead, she said, the transition staffers asked questions about the difference between the military’s court martial system and traditional process. “They wanted to know more about [the Uniform Code of Military Justice] and why that might not be as good as criminal courts,” Fredrickson said.

The coalition emphasized that a system of preventative detention would still be a massive human-rights and civil-liberties mess; and pushed back on the idea that the abuse suffered by detainees at Guantanamo would get the terrorism cases summarily thrown out in civilian court. “We can’t imagine anyone who really fits that category,” Fredrickson said, dismissing as too hypothetical a case of “someone who’s dangerous but there’s no admissible evidence” against him. “The bottom line is our criminal laws are very broad,” she said.

Fredrickson qualified her impressions of the meeting by saying the agency review team members she spoke with wore their “poker faces” and weren’t going to be the ones carrying out policy in the administration. Nor was she told of any timeline that President-elect Obama will enact to close Guantanamo Bay once in office. But “the meeting was about closing Guatnanamo,” she said, a bit bewildered to seriously discuss such a thing with emissaries of the next president of the United States. “Even that says… we’re in a different world now, aren’t we?”

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