July 28, 2009
Testimony of Jeh Charles Johnson
General Counsel, Department of Defense
Hearing Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security
"Prosecuting Terrorists: Civilian and Military Trials for GTMO and Beyond"
July 28, 2009
Mr. Chairman and Senator Kyl, thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.
On January 22, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Orders 13492 and 13493, which establish two interagency task forces -- one to review the appropriate disposition of the detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay, and another to review detention policy generally. These task forces consist of officials from the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and Homeland Security, and from our U.S. military and intelligence community. Over the past six months, these task forces have worked diligently to assemble the necessary information for a comprehensive review of our detention policy and the status of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.
I am pleased to appear today along with David Kris of the Department of Justice to report on the progress the Government has made in a few key areas, including especially military commission reform.
Let me begin with some general observations about our progress at Guantanamo Bay. All told, about 780 individuals have been detained at Guantanamo. Approximately 550 of those have been returned to their home countries or resettled in others. At the time this new Administration took office on January 20, 2009, we held approximately 240 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The detainee review task force has reviewed and submitted recommendations on more than half of those. So far, the detainee review task force has approved the transfer of substantially more than 50 detainees to other countries consistent with security and treatment considerations, and a number of others have been referred to a DOJ/DoD prosecution team for potential prosecution either in an Article III federal court or by military commission. Additional reviews are ongoing and the review process is on track. We remain committed to closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within the one-year time frame ordered by the President. A bi-partisan cross section of present and former senior officials of our government, and senior military leaders, have called for the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to enhance our national security, and this Administration is determined to do it.
The Administration, including the separate Detention Policy Task Force, is busy on a number of other fronts:
First, in his May 21 speech at the National Archives, President Obama called for the reform of military commissions, and pledged to work with the Congress to amend the Military Commissions Act. Military commissions can and should contribute to our national security by becoming a viable forum for trying those who violate the law of war. By working to improve military commissions to make the process more fair and credible, we enhance our national security by providing the government with effective alternatives for bringing to justice those international terrorists who violate the law of war. To that end, in May, the Secretary of Defense announced five changes to the rules for military commissions that we believe go a long way towards improving the process. (I note that those changes were developed initially within the Defense Department, in consultation with both military and civilian lawyers, and have the support of the Military Department Judge Advocates General, the Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) Significantly, these rule changes prohibit the admission of statements obtained through cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, provide detainees greater latitude in choice of counsel, afford basic protection for those defendants who refuse to testify, reform the use of hearsay by putting the burden on the party trying to use the statement, and make clear that military judges may determine their own jurisdiction.
Over the last few weeks, the Administration has also worked with the Congress on legislative reform of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, by commenting on Section 1031 of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which was reported out of the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 25, 2009. Section 1031 was adopted, with amendments, by the Senate on July 23, 2009. My Defense Department colleagues and I have had an opportunity to review the reforms to the military commissions included in the draft of the National Defense Authorization Act adopted by the Senate, and it is our basic view that the Act identifies virtually all of the elements we believe are important to further improve the military commissions process. We are confident that through close cooperation between the Administration and the Congress, reformed military commissions can emerge from this effort as a fully legitimate forum, one that allows for the safety and security of participants, for the presentation of evidence gathered from the battlefield that cannot always be effectively presented in an Article III federal court, and for the just resolution of cases alleging violations of the law of war.
At the same time, Mr. Kris and I have agreed upon a protocol for determining when cases for prosecution should be pursued in an Article III federal court or by military commission. By the nature of their conduct, many suspected terrorists may be charged with violations of both the federal criminal laws and the laws of war. There is a presumption that, where feasible, such cases should be prosecuted in Article III federal courts. Nonetheless, where other compelling factors make it more appropriate to prosecute a case in a reformed military commission, it may be prosecuted there. Our protocol calls for the Department of Justice and Department of Defense to weigh a variety of factors in making that forum selection assessment.
I will touch on one other issue. As the President stated in his National Archives address, there may ultimately be a category of Guantanamo detainees "who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes," but "who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States" and "in effect, remain at war with the United States." The Supreme Court held in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that detention of enemy forces captured on the battlefield during wartime is an accepted practice under the law of war, to ensure that they not return to the fight. For this category of people, the President stated "[w]e must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards" and "a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified."
This President believes that, if any detention of this sort proves necessary, the authority to detain must be rooted firmly in authorization granted by Congress. This is why, on March 13, 2009, the Department of Justice refined the Government's definition of our authority to detain those at Guantanamo Bay, from the "unlawful enemy combatant" definition used by the prior Administration to one that is tied to the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by the Congress in 2001, as informed by the laws of war. Thus the Administration has been relying solely on authority provided by Congress as informed by the laws of war in justifying to federal courts in habeas corpus litigation the continued detention of Guantanamo detainees.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to thank the men and women of the armed forces who currently guard our detainee population. From Guantanamo Bay to Baghdad to Bagram, these service members have conducted themselves in a dignified and honorable manner under the most stressful conditions. These Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines represent the very best of our military and have our appreciation, admiration and unwavering support.
I thank you again for the opportunity to appear here today and I look forward to your questions.