On June 9, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Guantanamo detainee specifically mentioned by President Obama as suitable to be tried in the civilian court system, pleaded not guilty in a federal district court in Manhattan. Ghailani is being held at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center.
In a well-publicized speech on May 20, President Obama criticized the Bush administration as taking an “ad hoc legal approach” to “fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable.” The Bush Administration’s policies regarding detainees were reflected in several internal memorandums, since released to the public, and have sparked much controversy. (CNN reported that, “Among the documents from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) is a 2001 memo declaring that in terrorism cases the military may conduct searches in the United States without a warrant if approved by the president.”) President Obama decried the Bush policies as un-American and called for the shuttering of Guantanamo Bay, an absolute ban on torture, and a forward-looking policy of persistent reevaluation.
Perhaps most controversially, President Obama has suggested that detainees, both those previously held at Guantanamo Bay and those captured in the future, ought to be tried in the federal court system. Guantanamo Bay is a naval base located in an area of Cuba that is – while subject to some international law disputes – technically “leased” to the United States. In internal memoranda, senior Bush administration officials suggested that Guantanamo Bay was outside the United States’ legal jurisdiction. This in turn enabled the United States government to “break” international and national law there.
The issue of where to hold and how to legally address terror detainees is of paramount significance to both President Obama and the long-term legitimacy of his foreign policy alterations. While no trial date has been set for Ghailani, however his case is handled will set a precedent for the 240 other Gitmo detainees Obama hopes will be sent to the U.S. for trial.