President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will restart Bush-era military tribunals for a small number of Guantanamo detainees, reviving a fiercely disputed trial system he once denounced.
He said the reconstituted commissions will include with new legal protections for terror suspects, including a rule that information gained "using cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation methods" will not be admissible.
Military commissions "are appropriate for trying enemies who violate the laws of war, provided that they are properly structured and administered," the president said in a statement. (Read the full statement.)
Mr. Obama suspended the tribunals within hours of taking office in January, ordering a review but stopping short of abandoning President George W. Bush's strategy of prosecuting suspected terrorists.
"I objected strongly to the Military Commissions Act that was drafted by the Bush Administration and passed by Congress because it failed to establish a legitimate legal framework and undermined our capability to ensure swift and certain justice against those detainees that we were holding at the time," he said in his statement Friday. "Indeed, the system of Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay had only succeeded in prosecuting three suspected terrorists in more than seven years."
The president announced five changes to the rules governing the commissions that he said "will begin to restore the Commissions as a legitimate forum for prosecution, while bringing them in line with the rule of law."
"First, statements that have been obtained from detainees using cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation methods will no longer be admitted as evidence at trial," he said. "Second, the use of hearsay will be limited, so that the burden will no longer be on the party who objects to hearsay to disprove its reliability. Third, the accused will have greater latitude in selecting their counsel. Fourth, basic protections will be provided for those who refuse to testify. And fifth, military commission judges may establish the jurisdiction of their own courts."
The military trials will remain frozen for another four months as the administration adjusts the legal system that is expected to try fewer than 20 of the 241 detainees currently at the U.S. naval detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Thirteen detainees - including five charged with helping orchestrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - are already in the tribunal system.
Mr. Obama said the White House will seek more time to reform the military commission process.
The tribunal system - set up after the military began sweeping detainees off the battlefields of Afghanistan in late 2001 - has been under repeated challenges from human rights and legal organizations because it denied defendants many of the rights they would be granted in a civilian courtroom.
In a statement late Thursday, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., called Mr. Obama's decision to revamp and restart the tribunals a step toward strengthening U.S. detention policies that have been derided worldwide.
"I continue to believe it is in our own national security interests to separate ourselves from the past problems of Guantanamo," Graham said. "I agree with the president and our military commanders that now is the time to start over and strengthen our detention policies. I applaud the president's actions today."
Yet the move by the new Democratic president is certain to face criticism from liberal groups, already stung by his decision Wednesday to try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. That decision marked a reversal of his earlier stand on making the photos public.
© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.