WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama forcefully declared his support Friday for U.S. civilian trials of Guantanamo detainees, pledging to overturn language in a sweeping defense bill that would effectively block such trials from happening anytime soon.
"The prosecution of terrorists in federal court is a powerful tool in our efforts to protect the nation and must be among the options available to us," the president said. "Any attempt to deprive the executive branch of that tool undermines our nation's counterterrorism efforts and has the potential to harm our national security.
Obama made the comments even while signing the legislation, which also allows funding for a wide range of military and national security programs that the president said were too important to dispense with.
The law bans the use of Defense Department dollars to transfer suspected terrorists held at the U.S. Navy prison in Cuba to the United States, where they could be tried in civilian court. That effectively prevents any such transfer from happening during the period covered by the legislation — the 2011 fiscal year that runs through September.
The language reflects deep concerns in Congress and the country about Guantanamo detainees being tried on U.S. soil. The first Guantanamo detainee tried in federal court was acquitted in November on all but one of more than 280 charges that he took part in the al-Qaida bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. That case ignited strident opposition to any further such trials.
Another case is that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, who had been slotted for trial in New York before Obama bowed to political resistance and blocked the Justice Department's plans.
But Obama said the provision blocking the transfer of detainees amounted to "a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees."
The legislation also blocks Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to foreign countries except under very narrow circumstances, a provision Obama also said he opposed.
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