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This Year in Scandals: Gitmo

Editor’s Note: Every Friday, we take stock of how the week unfolded for the top stories we’re tracking in Scandal Watch. We’re wrapping up the year by taking a look back at the highlights of those scandals. 

Brennan Linsley/AP PhotoThis May, the Pentagon swung open the doors to its new $12 million complex designed to try Gitmo detainees on war-crimes charges. Alas, its inaugural run did not go smoothly: The speakers fizzled out, a broadcast of the proceedings froze on the judge’s gaping expression, and the judge demanded that the charges be read even as the courtroom lost power and an alarm began to blare. That bungled debut augured a bumpy road ahead for Gitmo. Just six months later, it has tried only two detainees, other cases are unraveling and its closure nears the top of President-elect Obama’s to-do list.

Some of the greatest blows dealt to Gitmo have come from within its own ranks. In September, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld became the sixth prosecutor to protest the injustice of the military commissions, calling them a “stain on America’s military.” Vandeveld’s resignation lent credence to the growing suspicion that the deck is stacked in favor of the prosecution: Prosecutors have withheld evidence from the defense, and detainees have been hindered by uneven access to lawyers and translators. In addition, the tribunals’ nominally impartial legal adviser, who was removed from his post in September and is expected to retire early, is under investigation for allegedly supporting the prosecution.

The Supreme Court has been another critic of the Bush administration’s Gitmo strategy. Most recently, in June, the Court ruled that detainees have the right to challenge their detention in federal court. The administration vigorously opposed the ruling but then, facing a slew of new trials, asked if it could shore up its evidence. Regardless, the first civilian judges to see it weren’t impressed: They compared it to a Lewis Carroll poem and rebuffed the Pentagon’s right to hold the suspect as an enemy combatant. The ruling bolstered reports that perhaps hundreds of Gitmo detainees have been wrongfully imprisoned based on flimsy or hearsay evidence.

Other cases have disappointed the administration too. The first of the tribunals’ two convictions this year ended with a sentence of just 66 months, most of it time served. The government had sought at least 30 years. The government then dropped charges against five high-profile detainees in October after their prosecutor, Vandeveld, resigned.

Of approximately 250 detainees left at Gitmo, the Pentagon plans to try around 60 to 80. The administration is looking to resettle roughly 60 others, but its efforts to do so have been stymied by the fact that many countries refuse to take them, especially tethered to Bush’s demands.

The country with which the U.S. has wrangled the most is Yemen, home to 40 percent of Gitmo detainees. A group of 17 Uighurs is also caught in the crosshairs of this dilemma. They are no longer considered enemy combatants but have nowhere to go.

Obama will inherit these challenges on Jan. 20 when he confronts the thorny task of closing Gitmo. He has plans to shutter the camp “as quickly as we can do prudently” (eliciting much skepticism) and try up to 80 detainees in a new “terrorism court” in the U.S. But the thorn in his side could be that legal adviser under investigation for meddling with the prosecution. He is a staunch defender of the commissions and has whipped Gitmo into a flurry of legal activity. Officials down there say new terror trials will be announced before Bush’s days are up. And in another confident move, the Pentagon is debating new rules that would make it even easier for prosecutors to gather evidence and build cases against detainees.

The first test of Obama’s mettle may be the controversial case of Omar Khadr: His trial is slated to begin just six days after Obama takes office.