June 5, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Obama Backpedals on the Uighurs

There's an old saying among trial lawyers: "When you go into the woods and find a turtle high up on a tree stump, you know he didn't get there by himself." In other words, sometimes there is no innocent explanation for why someone is where they were when they were caught.

That maxim certainly applies to the 17 Chinese Uighurs caught fleeing Afghanistan after 9/11, who are now detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

The Uighurs (pronounced "wee-gers") are a Turkic Muslim minority group from western China. They really dislike the government of China -- so much that, shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, they sought the best training they could find on modern terrorist TTPs (tactics, training and procedures). For terrorists and wannabes, the top choice for terrorist training prior to 9/11 was Afghanistan. So that's where they went -- specifically, the training camps in Tora Bora.

Those camps were run by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which (no surprise) the U.S. State Department has designated as a terrorist organization.

After 9/11, the Uighurs fled to Pakistan. Some were captured by Pakistani or coalition forces, and some of those were handed over to the United States, which transferred them to Guantanamo. Except for five who we transferred to Albania in 2006, they've been held there ever since.

During the Bush administration, left-wing activists and politicians pushed for the Uighurs' release, often arguing that the enemy of our enemy (our ally China) is our friend.

So what?

Mercenaries who sought out the Harvard of terrorist training camps are dangerous, whatever their target on any particular day.

It seems the Obama administration got this point, but not until after floating a series of trial balloons this spring hinting that some Uighurs might be released into the United States.

First, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters that "the possibility exists" that some Uighurs would be coming to the United States.

Then in late March, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair shed more light on the administration's plan: "If we are to release them in the United States, you can't just sort of, as you said, put them on the street there, but we need some sort of assistance to them to start a new life."

That balloon crashed quickly. Both Republicans and Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, told the administration to forget about it. So, left with no political cover, the administration finally did the right thing.

Last Friday night, the Department of Justice filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court stating that the Uighurs have no Legal basis to be released into the United States.

Let that sink in. That's the same position the Bush administration was defending for years.

According to the Obama administration's new playbook, the Uighurs "have already obtained relief" because they have been cleared to leave Gitmo. And there is a big difference between being cleared for release to a suitable country and actually being released into the United States.

The Uighurs don't want to go back to China because they fear persecution. And the United States won't send any detainee to any country where, it is more likely than not, they'll be tortured. Thus, the standoff.

The Obama administration has finally recognized that the Uighurs are not only trained terrorists, but also illegal aliens with respect to United States. The DOJ brief explains that the "power to exclude aliens is 'inherent in sovereignty,' and that the power to decide which aliens may enter the United States … rests exclusively in the political branches."

This means that keeping the Uighurs in Gitmo, rather then setting them loose in the U.S. is, as the administration concludes, "constitutionally valid." Of course, they're right. But it sure took them a long time to come to that conclusion.

And where is the outrage that greeted the Bush administration's identical position? Where are the editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times decrying the Obama administration's "abandonment" of the rule of law? Keith Olbermann and other liberals have been suspiciously silent on this issue.

But don't hold your breath. This is, after all, the Obama administration.

The Uighurs' case is not a tough one to resolve. If sovereignty means anything, it means that the elected government, not unelected judges, gets to decide who is eligible to enter the country. The Uighurs are not Americans, have no ties to the United States, own no property here, and have no known relations in the country. They lack green cards or any other Legal status that entitles them to set foot on U.S. soil.

That would be enough for the U.S. to turn back any other alien at the border. So why not aliens who are terrorists, too?

Charles D. Stimson is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs in 2006-2007.

About the Author

Charles "Cully" Stimson Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow
Center for National Defense

First Appeared in Human Events