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Why military commissions? Given the United States’s track record of success in trying terrorists in civilian criminal courts, and the availability of courts-martial to try war crimes, why has the United States government, under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations alike, insisted on proceeding through untested military commissions instead? In May 2009, President Obama defended military commissions with the following claims:

Military commissions have a history in the United States dating back to George Washington and the Revolutionary War. They are an appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war. They allow for the protection of sensitive sources and methods of intelligence-gathering; they allow for the safety and security of participants; and for the presentation of evidence gathered from the battlefield that cannot always be effectively presented in federal courts.

Do these justifications warrant the use of military commissions? In this essay, I maintain that they do not. In the end, the impetus behind the military commissions is the hope – in my view, unsupported – that the commissions may permit easier convictions of individuals, and may allow prosecutors to avoid confronting the consequences of the United States’ systemic reliance on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading tactics in its interrogations of detainees. In this respect, the commissions are best understood not as a legitimate forum for trying war crimes, but as an avenue for short-circuiting legal processes that might hold us accountable for our wrongs.

The military commissions are a by-product of the “paradigm of prevention,” a term coined by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft for the post-9/11 emphasis on aggressively preventing future terrorism, rather than responding to crime after the fact. That approach stressed early intervention and aggressive gathering of intelligence about future threats, and therefore led government officials to sweep broadly, presume guilt without substantial evidence, detain innocents, and adopt “enhanced interrogation techniques” to coerce detainees into talking. Those choices, in turn, have greatly complicated and compromised the task of holding terrorists accountable, because such illegal shortcuts on investigatory rules taint any evidence obtained therefrom, and make it inadmissible in a criminal trial.

The military commissions reflect an ill-advised effort to avoid paying the price for the “paradigm of prevention.” That goal is an illegitimate one, and will in the end leave the commissions – and any convictions obtained in them – fundamentally tainted. Absent a willingness both to reckon candidly with the United States’ own past wrongs, and to proceed in the future under fundamentally fair trial procedures, the military commissions are likely to disserve our security interests and undermine our constitutional principles.

Publication Citation

David D. Cole, Military Commissions and the Paradigm of Prevention, in GUANTANAMO AND BEYOND: EXCEPTIONAL COURTS AND MILITARY COMMISSIONS IN AND POLICY PERSPECTIVES (Oren Gross and Fionnuala Ni Aolain, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press forthcoming 2013)