A key House subcommittee chairman said Tuesday he does not trust Justice Department assurances that a facility once slated for Guantanamo Bay detainees would now be used only to help alleviate overcrowding in U.S. prisons.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee, told Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin at a hearing that he does not support DOJ plans to use a Thomson, Ill., correctional facility for maximum-security prisoners.
The Thomson facility initially was considered as a location to house Guantanamo Bay detainees as part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the military prison in Cuba. But Congress last year banned the transfer of the prisoners to U.S. soil during fiscal 2011, which ends on Sept. 30.
The DOJ is requesting in its $28.2 billion fiscal 2012 budget request about $67 million to activate the facility, which the Department has yet to buy. The Department also requested in its fiscal 2011 budget $237 million to purchase the prison. But Congress has yet to approve a fiscal 2011 budget for the DOJ.
Lappin told Wolf that using the facility for Guantanamo Bay detainees is “not the case now.” Wolf jumped on the director’s remark, commending him for his “conscience.”
“The confidence level in the Attorney General and the Bureau of Prisons and the administration on this issue is not very high because they were going to go there,” Wolf said.
The Bureau of Prisons cares for about 200,000 inmates and is expected to take in thousands of more prisoners in the next year, Lappin said.
The DOJ will have to take general-population prisons and renovate them for maximum security inmates if Congress doesn’t allow them to use the Thomson facility, Lappin said. Without Thomson, he said, prisons will become more crowded.
Wolf seemed unimpressed.
The Republican said the Bureau of Prisons should devote its energy to reducing recidivism through prison work programs and rehabilitation in addition to working on proposals for early releases.
“I don’t think the Bureau of Prisons ought to get so wrapped up in Thomson,” Wolf said.
Lappin said his agency is working on early release proposals, has programs in place to help reduce recidivism and supports further efforts in those areas. But he stressed the importance of increased funding for the Bureau of Prisons.
“We cannot get through this fiscal year at [the fiscal 2010] level,” Lappin said.
The federal government must retain the flexibility to use both military commissions and the federal courts to try prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
The Barack Obama administration, and Holder in particular, have come under fire for their handling of detainees at Guantanamo. Holder’s statement came as Obama announced that military tribunals will resume for detainees held at the prison.
Holder criticized members of Congress who he said are attempting to undermine the process by imposing restrictions on the Administration’s ability to try detainees. The Guantanamo issue is particularly sensitive for Holder, who was criticized in 2009 for his initial decision to try high-ranking al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City.
The White House has said it would consider using military commissions or other civilian courts for the prosecution. But Holder told a congressional committee last week that he hasn’t reached a decision on the venue for the prosecution.
The Obama administration has said it wants to close the prison at Guantanamo, but Holder told the congressional panel last week that he is not sure the prison will be closed by the end of the president’s first term.
Attorney General Eric Holder said at various times over the last year that he is near a decision on the venue for the prosecution of the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. But at a House hearing on Tuesday, Holder said he was done with making predictions.
“Obviously, I can’t predict timing very well,” Holder said.
The Attorney General announced in November 2009 that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged accomplices would be tried in a Manhattan federal court as part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. But the prospect died amid backlash from Republicans and Democrats, and the White House stepped in to take a more hands-on role in the matter.
Critics of the plan raised concerns about the security costs for a trial in downtown New York, the possibility that the defendants might be able to use the courtroom as a public venue to spread propaganda and the chance that the defendants might be found not guilty.
Since Holder’s announcement, the White House has said that it would consider using military commissions for the prosecutions and is considering other places for a civilian trial.
In April 2010, the Attorney General said he anticipated a decision in “a number of weeks.” In November, he said he was “close to a decision.”
On Tuesday, Holder told members of the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice and science subcommittee that he continued to work on his decision and the Obama administration’s plan to shutter the Guantanamo Bay detention center, which currently holds about 175 terrorism suspects.
“Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda; all of the intelligence tells us that,” Holder said. “It has served as a wedge between the United States and some of its traditional allies. Countless numbers of people who are steeped in these issues, Republicans as well as Democrats, have indicated that the closure of Guantanamo will help us fight against those who have sworn to do harm to the American people and American interests around the world.”
But the Attorney General said he didn’t know whether the facility would be closed before the end of Obama’s first term in 2013. The president, tacking to post-election political winds, already abandoned a self-imposed deadline to shutter the facility by January 2010. Congress has prohibited the Obama administration from moving Guantanamo detainees to the United States for detention or prosecution.
Holder came before the subcommittee to testify about the DOJ’s $28.2 billion fiscal 2012 budget request, which includes funds to activate a Thomson, Ill., correctional facility that had been slated for Guantanamo Bay detainees. But the Attorney General said the facility would be used for maximum-security prisoners, not Guantanamo detainees because of the restrictions Congress put on the transfer of the detainees.
Assistant Attorney General Tony West of the Justice Department Civil Division on Friday highlighted an often unpublicized part of his office’s portfolio: its work on national security matters.
The Civil Division typically is noted for its efforts to combat fraud, enforce immigration laws and protect consumers. But the Civil Division deals with almost all parts of the Barack Obama administration’s national security policy priorities, West said. He was speaking at an American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security breakfast attended by dozens of lawyers, including Civil Division Senior Counsel Mary L. Smith, Obama’s former DOJ Tax Division nominee.
“And probably nothing we do in the Civil Division is as vital to the safety and security of the American people as our work on national security matters,” West said. “Indeed, there’s scarcely a week that goes by where there isn’t some significant, often controversial national security issue that crosses my desk.”
West said habeas corpus cases involving Guantanamo Bay detainees take up most of the time he devotes to national security matters. He said the Civil Division is handling about 140 habeas cases involving Guantanamo Bay detainees who are contesting the legality of their detention.
The Assistant Attorney General said it is important to defend the cases because the detentions have strong legal justifications, the trials have safeguards in place for fairness and evidence used in the trials is not obtained by torture.
“While, in doing our best, we may not always get it right, I can assure you that we always try to do what’s right,” West said. “And I think that is the critical difference.”
Handling terrorism cases was nothing new for West when he became the Civil Division chief in 2009.
West, a former partner at the law firm of Morrison & Foerster LLP in San Francisco, represented the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2002.
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Prisons wants to begin hiring staff to run the Thomson prison facility in Illinois where the Obama administration plans to to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees, a top Justice Department official said Monday.
Even as the likelihood that Guantanamo Bay detainees will set foot in the facility dwindles, that appraisals of the property are underway and the Bureau of Prisons is committed to acquiring the facility this year, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich wrote in a letter to members of the Illinois congressional delegation.
“BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility,” Weich wrote in the letter dated June 21.
Bureau of Prisons Chief Harley Lappin had told the delegation that the Obama administration is moving forward with the plans. The text of the letter was posted online by the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn.
Weich wrote that appraisals of the property are underway and the representatives from the bureau have met with local officials and prospective job applicants. Bureau of Prisons officials plan to attend events at Illinois community colleges over the coming weeks where they will take job applications and run resume workshops, Weich told the members of Congress.
House lawmakers recently took steps to block the use of federal funds for the modification of Thomson, but that does not prohibit the use of federal funding to purchase the location.
The text of the letter is embedded below.
June 21, 2010
The Honorable Richard J. Durbin
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
The Honorable Donald A. Manzullo
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Senator Durbin and Congressman Manzullo:
We understand that Harley Lappin, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), recently briefed both of you and your staffs on the significant progress being made by BOP and the State of Illinois in their efforts to complete multiple steps required at the federal and state levels in order to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center. This letter reaffirms the Administration’s commitment to acquiring the facility this year and provides additional details about measures that have been taken to date and those that will be taken in the coming months. We are also forwarding a copy of this letter to Governor Quinn in light of the active, ongoing efforts of Illinois state officials on this issue.
As Director Lappin stated in his briefings to you, multiple appraisals of the facility by the federal government and the state are in progress. In addition, officials from BOP’s Capacity Planning, Facility Activation, and Site Selection Office and BOP’s North Central Regional Office have been meeting with local officials and prospective job applicants throughout the region to discuss staffing needs for operating the institution. These include meetings in Fulton, Illinois on April 21, Moline, Illinois on May 4, Freeport, Illinois on May 5, and Davenport, Iowa on May 6. Additional meetings are planned this month for application and resume workshops at Sauk Valley Community College and Black Hawk Community College.
In response to Congressman Manzullo’s request on May 24, 2010, that BOP “separate the GITMO portion of the Thomson plan and proceed with the full utilization of the Thomson Correctional Facility as a stand-alone federal prison,” we understand that Director Lappin explained that BOP will have access to the entire facility after it is acquired. BOP plans to make certain modifications to the facility and hire and train a full complement of staff while the Defense Department continues to work with Congress to obtain authorization and funding for a portion of the Thomson facility.
Building and maintaining strong relationships with communities that surround BOP institutions is an important part of our operations. Thank you for your ongoing support, and we look forward to continuing to discuss with you our plans for activating and operating the facility. Please do not hesitate to contact this office if we may be of further assistance with this or any other matter.
Assistant Attorney General
cc: The Honorable Pat Quinn
Governor of the State of Illinois
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Assistant United States Attorney John Durham is close to completing a preliminary review of whether there is evidence that CIA agents or contractors violated the law when they used brutal methods to interrogate terror detainees, Attorney General Eric Holder said in speech Thursday night.
Holder, speaking in a question and answer session after his remarks at the University of the District of Columbia Law School, said Durham is ”close to the end of the time that he needs and will be making some recommendations to me.”
Holder’s comments were his fullest status report to date on the one of the Justice Department’s most politically sensitive inquiries. On Friday, several Justice officials cautioned that although Durham is nearing completion, it may take weeks or months to absorb his findings and decide what steps, if any, to pursue next.
Holder said the investigation would determine whether any intelligence officers or contractors went beyond the restrictions, outlined by the Office of Legal Counsel in a series of classified legal opinions which were written during the George W. Bush administration and which have since been disavowed.
The preliminary inquiry has created tensions between the Justice Department and the CIA, key partners in the government’s effort against international terrorism. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, opposed Holder’s decision to open the inquiry in to the agents’ conduct, and in November 2009, seven former CIA directors wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to halt the investigation.
The interrogation opinions permitted harsh techniques like waterboarding that Holder has said amounted to torture. The opinions also directed that the interrogations, using so called “enhanced techniques,” be carried under rules intended to prevent serious injury or death, though human rights groups have condemned the methods.
“What I made clear is that for those people who acted in conformity with Justice Department opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel that said you could do certain things… people who acted in good faith in line with the Department of Justice guidance, will not be the people we are looking at or interested in,” Holder said Thursday.
“It’s a question of whether people went beyond those pretty far-out OLC opinions, people who went beyond that,” Holder said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”
Durham was appointed in August 2009 to look into the treatment of prisoners at so-called “black sites” overseas. In 2008, Durham had been appointed by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the destruction of dozens of CIA videotapes of detainee interrogations. Holder made no mention of the status of that aspect of Durham’s inquiry.
At the appointment in August, Holder said “neither the opening of a preliminary review nor, if evidence warrants it, the commencement of a full investigation, means that charges will necessarily follow.”
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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday the Obama administration will take several more weeks to reach a final decision on whether the Sept. 11th plotters will be tried in a military commission instead of a civilian court.
The Washington Post reported last week that aides to President Obama are close to recommending that self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged accomplices be tried in a military court. But Gibbs warned reporters at Tuesday’s daily White House press briefing that a decision will not happen in the coming days.
“I don’t expect a decision on that for several or many weeks,” Gibbs said.
The White House has faced pressure from both sides of the aisle to reverse Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try the terrorism suspects in a New York federal court. Obama is now personally involved in selecting the location of the KSM trial, Gibbs said.
“The president obviously has gotten involved because Congress has actively been involved in venue options for any trial involving Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” Gibbs said.
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In a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times, the American Civil Liberties Union appealed to President Barack Obama to keep the trial of the Sept. 11 plotters, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in civilian courts.
In November 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would try KSM in New York City near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. After initially expressing support for the trial, New York City business leaders and Mayor Michael Bloomberg changed course, complaining in January about the potential cost and disruption of a trial in Manhattan. Last week, The Washington Post reported that President Obama’s advisers are close to recommending that the DOJ return KSM to a military tribunal for prosecution.
In the ad, which features an image of Obama morphing into President George W. Bush, the ACLU calls on the president to support Holder’s original plan to try KSM and other Sept. 11, 2001, conspirators in civilian courts.
The ACLU has been critical of several of Obama’s national security and terrorism policies, saying his administration is beginning to have too many similarities to the Bush administration, such as a reliance on a “state secrets” privilege to keep information on some terrorism suspects out of court.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, recently criticized the shift to military commissions, saying if such a change is made Obama would deal “a death blow to his own Justice Department.”
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President Barack Obama’s advisers are “nearing a recommendation” that the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, return to a military tribunal for prosecution, the Washington Post reports.
The White House had already overruled Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision, announced with fanfare in November, to try Mohammed in New York City, near the site of the demolished World Trade Center towers. That reversal came after New York City business leaders and Mayor Michael Bloomberg complained in January about the cost and disruption of a trial in Manhattan.
Bloomberg’s remarks set off a stampede among Democratic officials, who rushed to oppose a trial in Manhattan, prompting the administration to look for a new venue.
Then came hints that the administration would drop the whole idea of civilian trials for KSM, as Mohammed is known in government circles, and other Guantanamo Bay detainees. The White House was struggling to win support in Congress for closing Guantanamo Bay, after blowing a self-imposed one-year deadline for shuttering the military detention facility in Cuba. Civilian trials were an obstacle to winning that support.
Civil liberty groups, already queasy about Obama administration policies that hewed in their view too closely to the George W. Bush administration, such as a reliance on a “state secrets” privilege to keep information on some terrorism suspects out of court, began bracing for the worst.
With today’s report that KSM isn’t likely to be tried in civilian court at all, Anthony Romero,executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, doesn’t hold back.
“If President Obama reverses Holder’s decision to try the 9/11 defendants in criminal court and retreats to using the Bush military commissions, he deals a death blow to his own Justice Department, breaks a clear campaign promise to restore the rule of law and demonstrates that the promises to his constituents are all up for grabs,” Romero told the Post.
“The military commissions have not worked, they are doomed to failure, and Obama will invariably find himself running for office again while not achieving justice for the 9/11 attacks,” Romero said.
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A federal judge has ruled that the government must turn over memos by high-ranking Justice Department officials on the transfers of alleged terrorist Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to move from the military commission system to civilian court, according an article in the New York Law Journal.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled in an opinion unsealed Wednesday that prosecutors must produce the memos because they could shed light on why Ghailani was kept out of the criminal justice for almost five years.
In the opinion, Kaplan argued that the DOJ official’s memos fall under the the prosecution’s discovery obligations because the officials can be considered part of the “government” as defined by the Rules of Criminal Procedure.
“Even if those officials had no other involvement with Ghailani’s investigation or prosecution, the decisions at issue were so important to the timing and progress of this case that participation in decisionmaking renders those individuals members of the prosecution team, at least to the extent of that participation,” Kaplan wrote in the opinion.
Kaplan’s opinion was sealed after it was written in January to allow court officers time to vet the ruling to prevent disclosing national security information.
The opinion could provide ammunition for critics of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to try Guantanamo detainees in civilian court. Republicans, and some Democrats, have argued that evidence produced in such trials could reveal information about the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts against al-Qaeda and others.
Ghaliani allegedly took part in an al-Qaeda plot to destroy U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 then transferred to a CIA “black site.” In 2006, he was sent to Guantanmo before ultimatley being charged in a New York federal court last year.
Ghailani’s lawyers sought the DOJ memos in an attempt to dismiss his indictment on speedy trial grounds. Lead prosecutor Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz argued that because the DOJ officials were not intimately involved with the case the memos did not have to be produced in discovery.