In a filing to a Distict Circuit Court in Washington DC today, the Obama administration declared that they will no longer define detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison as "enemy combatants." Although the filing affirms the armed forces authority to detain individuals who were “part of,” or who provided “substantial support” to, al-Qaida or Taliban forces and “associated forces,” and that authority "is not limited to persons captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan."

There isn't much sunlight between Obama and Bush here. The one substantial difference is the use of the word "substantial" in defining the threshold for detention, but what they mean by "substantial" is not explained in the filing, and the administration is still maintaining an unlimited geographic zone for their authority to detain "enemy combatants," indefinitely and without charges. The decision to stop calling detainees at Guantanamo "enemy combatants" is at this point, almost meaningless: they are articulating almost the same detention authority as before, only potentially slightly more limited.

"The new definition is way too broad and, in critical respects, reflects a continuation of the prior administration's wrongheaded and illegal detention policy," says Jonathan Hafetz of the ACLU. "In particular, it continues to treat terorr suspects as a military, rather than criminal justice matter, and to claim the authority to seize and detain inividuals captured beyond the battlefield indefinitely and without charges."

Ken Gude, a human rights expert at the Center for American Progress, suggests the administration may be trying to buy time.

"Recognizing that this is a process that is ongoing, that the process of developing the Obama administration’s detention policy is ongoing," Gude says, "this authority articulated today still needs significant improvement to bring it in line with past practice of the U.S. military and their obligations under international law.”

Obviously the administration has a lot on their plate when it comes to revamping our approach to fighting terrorism. The numerous court cases they're faced with have forced them to move more quickly on developing a detention policy than they'd like. But many changes so far have been incremental, or in the case of the state secrets doctrine, entirely consistent with the Bush administration.

-- A. Serwer

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