Forget about the frustration at the slow pace of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. You know it's got to really burn the administration to miss a good chance for a PR coup.
But as The Washington Post reports this morning, things are moving at such a glacial pace down in sunny Guantanamo that it seems impossible at this point that any of the September 11th suspects will begin trial before the election -- or even before the Bush administration leaves office.
You know that's got to burn because of comments made by the Pentagon officials heading up the trials. The former chief prosecutor there testified that he was told that he should really push to land plea deals or indictments before the election. And another member of the prosecution team said the Pentagon's top legal adviser in its commissions office wanted to pursue certain cases ahead of others because they would "seize the imagination of the American public" and make a splash.
But the only case that seems at all likely to go to trial before the election is that of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, the alleged driver for Osama bin Laden. And the pretrial hearings for that have been far from pretty -- with Gitmo's former chief prosecutor testifying about the politicization of the system, and Hamdan, who says he has been addled by torture and prolonged solitary confinement, himself proclaiming that he won't participate in what he sees as a rigged system.
The apparent problem is that it just takes a long time to work out the kinks of a made-up process. As a lawyer from Human Rights Watch puts it, "Every little detail ends up being contested, because it's an entirely new system of justice."
But administration officials are trying to keep their chins up, their eyes on the prize. In answering criticisms that the process will be occasionally and arbitrarily shielded from the press, Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the top legal authority in the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions and the man who was, according to those prosecutors referenced above, so keen on landing indictments before the elections, is unapologetic. Certain things have to be blocked from the press to ensure that classified or sensitive information is not disseminated, he says. And besides, who needs publicity?
Hartmann said that within the military commissions process, "the principal obligation is not to the press," and that the cases are full, fair and open because of the rights afforded to the defendants. "That's what we do in the American system of justice," he said.