WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that it is abandoning one of President George W. Bush's key phrases in the war on terrorism: enemy combatant.
But that won't change much for the detainees at the U.S. naval base in Cuba — Obama still asserts the military's authority to hold them. Human rights attorneys said they were disappointed that Obama didn't take a new stance.
"This is really a case of old wine in new bottles," the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been fighting the detainees' detention, said in a statement. "It is still unlawful to hold people indefinitely without charge. The men who have been held for more than seven years by our government must be charged or released."
In another court filing Thursday criticized by human rights advocates, the Obama administration tried to protect top Bush administration military officials from lawsuits brought by prisoners who say they were tortured while being held at Guantanamo Bay.
The Obama administration's position on use of the phrase "enemy combatants" came in response to a deadline by U.S. District Judge John Bates, who is overseeing lawsuits of detainees challenging their detention. Bates asked the administration to give its definition of whom the United States may hold as an "enemy combatant."
The filing back's Bush's stance on the authority to hold detainees, even if they were not captured on the battlefield in the course of hostilities. In their lawsuits, detainees have argued that only those who directly participated in hostilities should be held.
"The argument should be rejected," the Justice Department said in its filing. "Law-of-war principles do not limit the United States' detention authority to this limited category of individuals. A contrary conclusion would improperly reward an enemy that violates the laws of war by operating as a loose network and camouflaging its forces as civilians."
Attorney General Eric Holder also submitted a declaration to the court outlining President Barack Obama's efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year and determine where to place the 240 people held there. He said there could be "further refinements" to the administration's position as that process goes on.
"Promptly determining the appropriate disposition of those detained at Guantanamo Bay is a high priority for the president," Holder wrote.
Elisa Massimino, CEO and Executive Director of Human Rights First, urged the administration to use that opening. "We certainly hope it will use that opportunity to narrow the authority and make a clean break from the policies of the past," she said.
There are some changes in legal principles in Obama's stance. The Justice Department said authority to hold detainees comes from Congress and the international laws of war, not from the president's own wartime power as Bush had argued.
The Justice Department says prisoners can only be detained if their support for al-Qaida, the Taliban or "associated forces" was "substantial." But it does not define the terms and says "circumstances justifying detention will vary from case to case."
Retired Army Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a former Guantanamo official who has since become critical of the legal process, said it's a change in nothing but semantics.
"There's absolutely no change in the definition," Abraham said in a telephone interview. "To say this is a kinder more benevolent sense of justice is absolutely false. ... I think the only thing they've done is try to separate themselves from the energy of the debate" by eliminating Bush's phrasing.
On the topic of former administration officials, the Justice Department argued in a filing with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that holding military officials liable for their treatment of prisoners could cause them to make future decisions based on fear of litigation rather than appropriate military policy.
The suit before the appeals court was brought by four British citizens — Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, Rhuhel Ahmed and Jamal Al-Harith — who were sent back to Great Britain in 2004. The defendants in the case include former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and retired Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The men say they were beaten, shackled in painful stress positions and threatened by dogs during their time at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. They also say they were harassed while practicing their religion, including forced shaving of their beards, banning or interrupting their prayers, denying them copies of the Koran and prayer mats and throwing a copy of the Koran in a toilet.
They contend in their lawsuit that the treatment violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides that the "government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion."
The appeals court ruled against them early last year, saying because the men were foreigners held outside the United States, they do not fall within the definition of a "person" protected by the act.
But later in the year, the Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo detainees have some rights under the Constitution. So the Supreme Court instructed the appeals court to reconsider the lawsuit in light of their decision.
Eric Lewis, attorney for the four, said Friday that military officials should be subject to liability when they order torture.
"The upshot of the Justice Department's position is that there is no right of detainees not to be tortured and that officials who order torture should be protected," Lewis said.
Last month in another court filing, the Justice Department sided with the Bush White House by arguing that detainees at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights.