Eric Holder Travels to Gitmo; Rights Groups Uneasy

As Attorney General Eric Holder travels to Cuba today to take part in a review of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, some civil libertarians and human rights groups have been feeling uneasy that they are receiving mixed signals regarding President Obama's commitment to dramatically alter the anti-terrorism policies of the Bush administration.

Although most of the groups were initially thrilled with the administration's promise to close the detention center, lately they have been worried that President Obama will not move as quickly or as definitively as they had hoped to investigate or reverse other legal positions taken by the Bush administration.

In his first week Obama issued executive orders calling for the closure of the detention center "within a year," a review of the legal status of each detainee, the shuttering of long-term CIA secret prisons abroad and the banning of some of the harshest interrogation techniques. President Obama also repudiated the legal opinions crafted during the Bush administration on topics such as torture.

At the time, Anthony Romero of the ACLU released a statement saying, "These executive orders represent a giant step forward. Putting an end to Guantanamo, torture and secret prisons is a civil liberties trifecta, and President Obama should be highly commended for this bold and decisive action so early in his administration."

But a month later, lawyers for the Justice Department chose to reassert one of the Bush administration's most controversial legal positions, by arguing in federal court in California that a national security case should be dismissed based on a "state secrets privilege." The Bush administration had argued that the case, involving alleged former detainees of the CIA's secret prison program, should be dismissed because it would cause valuable national security issues to be revealed in open court.

The ACLU was quick to react: "Eric Holder's Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government," an ACLU statement said. "This is not change. This is definitely more of the same."

Matt Waxman, who served as deputy assistant secretly of defense for detainee affairs in the Bush administration, suggested it might be too early to conclude that the Obama administration would support a similar "state secrets privilege" in other cases that crop up.

"One should be careful in reading too much into the recent state secrets argument," he said. "However, it shows that while the Obama administration wants to distance itself from some Bush Administration practices and arguments, it will also want to preserve executive prerogatives. I expect that on many legal issues, the Obama administration will not go as far in repudiating Bush administration arguments as some camps hope."

There have been other disappointments for Democrats and human rights groups.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, floated the idea in a major speech at Georgetown University of creating a "truth commission" to investigate the Bush administration's Department of Justice. Later, at a press conference, President Obama did not embrace the idea saying, "I will take a look at Sen. Leahy's proposal, but my general orientation is to say, let's get it right moving forward."

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