GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — The U.S. military is reviewing its decision to classify hundreds of Guantanamo Bay inmates as "enemy combatants," a step that could lead to new hearings for men who have spent years behind bars in indefinite detention.
Navy Capt. Theodore Fessel Jr., the lead officer at Guantanamo for the Defense Department agency that oversees the panels, said authorities have begun seeking new or previously overlooked evidence that may warrant new hearings after the process came under fire.
"With all the outside eyes looking in at the process, it's forcing us to say, 'OK, did we take everything into consideration when we did the Combatant Status Review Tribunals?"' Fessel told journalists Wednesday at the naval base in southeast Cuba.
Critics called it an overdue acknowledgment that the so-called Combatant Status Review Tribunals are unfairly geared toward labeling detainees the enemy, even when they pose little danger. Simply redoing the tribunals won't fix the problem, they said, because the system still allows coerced evidence and denies detainees legal representation.
Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, an insider who has become one of the most prominent critics of the tribunal process, said Thursday that the development shows the system is fatally flawed.
"Ultimately, conducting new CSRTs — even discussing the possibility — repudiates every prior assertion that the original CSRTs were valid acts," Abraham told The Associated Press in an e-mail Thursday. "They are, in essence, both a hypocritical act as well as an act of moral cowardice."
Abraham, an Army reservist who was a liaison between Guantanamo tribunals and intelligence agencies and served on a combatant review panel, made headlines this summer when he told Congress and the Supreme Court that tribunal members felt pressured to find against detainees.
Last week, an Army major who sat on 49 tribunals also publicly criticized the panels, saying in an affidavit that they favored the government. Both men said that in cases where the panels declared a detainee was not an enemy combatant, commanders reconvened panels to hear more evidence, and sometimes reversed the findings without sufficient new evidence.
The military and the Bush administration have consistently defended the tribunals, established in 2004 to legitimize the detention of men they described as among the world's worst terrorists.
The military held Combatant Status Review Tribunals for 558 detainees in 2004 and 2005. Detainees were handcuffed and provided with a military "personal representative" instead of a defense attorney as they appeared in a trailer before three-officer panels. All but 38 were determined to be "enemy combatants," a classification the Bush administration has used to mean they can be held indefinitely without many of the rights afforded to conventional prisoners of war.
"The CSRTs were NOT fair," Abraham wrote in his e-mail to the AP. "They were specifically designed to reach a result and, in the few instances where a contrary result was reached, pressure was exerted to change the decision, a new tribunal was selected" or the decision was disregarded.
By reviewing the cases, Fessel said the military is recognizing that some detainees may no longer pose a threat. Citing a hypothetical example, he said a detainee who belonged to a Taliban faction that has stopped fighting may no longer be a security risk.
"It's an acknowledgment that if there is new evidence or a new thing to take into bearing, in the spirit of being an open and fair process, we have to take that into consideration," said Fessel, of the Pentagon's Office of Administrative Review of Detained Enemy Combatants.
He said he did not know how many of the roughly 330 detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of links to terrorism, al-Qaida or the Taliban might face new hearings.
Once detainees are deemed enemy combatants, they face review boards once a year that assess whether they still pose a threat or have intelligence value, and recommend whether they should be transferred, released or continue to be detained. Assistant Secretary of Defense Gordon England determined after last year's hearings that 328 men should continue to be detained and 55 should be transferred.
The commander of the detention center, Navy Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, said Wednesday that its population will likely continue to shrink until slightly more than 200 detainees remain — "the real hard-core people that are very unrepentant, committed jihadists."
But critics said the system will remain unfair as long as the evidence is kept secret.
"Enough is enough — the military has had nearly six years to formulate, adapt and fix the proceedings at Guantanamo," said Gitanjali Gutierrez of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, whose many attempts to challenge the detentions have been blocked by the Bush administration.
Separately, the military filed attempted murder charges against a Guantanamo detainee who allegedly threw a hand grenade into a vehicle carrying two American soldiers and an interpreter in Afghanistan in 2002, according to documents released Thursday. Mohammed Jawad has denied the accusation.