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What’s the Department of Defense Hiding About Bagram?

As President Obama talks about building up U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it raises the inevitable question about what he’s going to do with the 600 prisoners the United States is holding at the prison at the Bagram air base – and whether previous plans to build a new prison to hold 1000 more detainees will go forward.

As I noted in a recent post about Bagram and the habeas corpus cases of four detainees being held there, U.S. District Judge John Bates ordered the Pentagon to produce information about just how many of those 600 men and boys were picked up outside of Afghanistan. Well, the Defense Department responded to Bates, but the answer?

It’s blacked out.

This matters because the Justice Department has been arguing that the Bagram prison just holds warriors picked up on the “battlefield” in Afghanistan, and under international law they can be held indefinitely.

But we know that at least some of the prisoners –- including the four habeas petitioners I wrote about — were picked up as far away as Yemen, Pakistan and even Thailand. That suggests that Bagram is being used more as a holding pen for suspected terrorists from around the world – much like the prison at Guantanamo Bay — than as a temporary battlefield detention center. And the more it’s like Gitmo, the more likely it is that Bagram prisoners deserve the same rights that Gitmo prisoners do under the U.S. Constitution.

I, for one, was pretty disappointed to learn that when the government filed its document responding to Judge Bates on Jan. 16 – just four days before President Obama’s inauguration –- the Justice Department had redacted the part that contained the answer. (My request for an explanation earlier today from Pentagon spokesman LTC Mark Wright went unanswered.)

What’s that about? What is the government hiding, and why is Judge Bates letting it get away with it?

Judge Bates has also asked the government –- now, the Obama administration — to “provide input regarding the definition of ‘enemy combatant’” in light of Obama’s Jan. 22 executive order on prisoner detention. Bates has also asked the administration to explain whether it plans to reverse the Bush administration’s position that it can hold Bagram detainees indefinitely.

Let’s hope those statements won’t be blacked out, too.

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