The Obama administration announced in a court filing today that it will no longer assert that the U.S. is entitled to detain captured terrorists as “enemy combatants:”
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. The Justice Department said in legal filings that it will no longer use the term to justify holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
It is unclear, however, how much significance the change will have. The Bush administration relied heavily on its right to detain “captured enemy combatants,” who have a lesser status than legitimate prisoners of war. But Obama’s Justice Department isn’t going to start calling them “criminal defendants.” It takes the position that they can still properly be held:
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.”
So perhaps the change is only cosmetic, another instance of the Obama administration announcing a departure from Bush administration practice that is merely symbolic. I hope so.