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US defense secretary appoints top military commissions authority

[JURIST] US Defense Secretary Robert Gates [official profile] on Thursday appointed [press release] retired Navy Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald [official profile] as the convening authority for military commissions [JURIST news archive]. Considered an expert in military law, MacDonald's experience as a former Navy judge advocate general played a significant role in the appointment process. MacDonald replaces Susan Crawford, a Bush administration appointee. The position was created under the Military Commissions Act of 2006 [text, PDF] to oversee military commissions themselves, such as those at Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive], and also to oversee the Office of Military Commissions. Notably, the convening authority has the power to review and approve charges against "belligerents," pursuant to the Military Commissions Act.

The appointment may indicate that the Obama administration is planning to try accused 9/11 conspirators, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [BBC Profile; JURIST news archive] in a military trial rather than in civilian criminal court, as Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] had originally announced [JURIST report]. Last week, Holder defended his decision [JURIST report] to try the suspected terrorists in civilian court. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], a group that has been persistent in its advocacy of civilian trials for the 9/11 suspects, expressed support [press release] for Holder's decision. Earlier this month, the ACLU released a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging President Barack Obama [JURIST report] to uphold his pledge to try 9/11 suspects in civilian criminal court. That release came just days after reports that White House advisers are considering recommending [JURIST report] that Mohammed be tried in a military court rather than through the civilian criminal justice system.

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