WASHINGTON - The US solicitor general under former President George Bush said on Thursday that the legal system created for the detainees at Guantanamo was a failure, and the military commissions were "doomed from the start".
In an opinion column published in the Wall Street Journal, Ted Olson said the US government should negotiate settlements in all of the ongoing cases at Guantanamo. While serving under Bush, Olson had defended the expansion of surveillance powers in the Patriot Act and also argued for extensive presidential control over detainees.
"In retrospect, we made two mistakes in dealing with the detained individuals at Guantanamo. First, we created a new legal system out of whole cloth," he wrote.
"I now understand that the commissions were doomed from the start. We used new rules of evidence and allowed evidence regardless of how it was obtained. We tried to pursue justice expeditiously in a new, untested legal system."
Olson, whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks, said in the op-ed that the already established legal process in the US would have properly been able to handle the cases. However, the Bush administration "didn't trust America's tried-and-true courts".
The comments appear to be a major reversal for Olson, who in 2004 argued at the Supreme Court that the detainees at Guantanamo were not subject to American law and do not have the right to be defended in US courts.
Many legal experts have said the military commissions process at Guantanamo Bay has been an "abject failure", and have called on the US government to put an end to the proceedings, which have for decades been stuck at the pre-trial stage.
"Instead of helping Americans learn more about who carried the attacks out and why, they have produced seemingly endless litigation largely concerned with the treatment of detainees by government agents and the government’s attempts to suppress certain information," Olson wrote.
Legal experts have also advocated for bringing the current cases to the US to be adjudicated in the American court system.
However, in 2010 Congress banned the transfer of any Guantanamo detainee to US soil, making that option difficult to pursue.
The former solicitor general added that the only way forward to close the prison is to negotiate guilty pleas with the detainees that have been charged by the military commissions.
"If the 9/11 defendants held at Guantanamo are willing to plead guilty, and accept a life sentence at the military prison instead of the death penalty, we should accept that deal," he wrote.
Olson's op-ed comes as Guantanamo detainee, Majid Khan, became the sixth detainee to be released from the prison under the Joe Biden administration. Khan had spent more than 16 years at the prison and was first transferred there in 2006 after being in CIA custody.
Thirty-four detainees currently remain imprisoned at Guantanamo, with 20 of them being cleared for transfer out of the prison.