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Context of 'April 28, 2004: Bush Administration Argues Supreme Court Has No Role in Deciding Fate of ‘Enemy Combatants’'

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Jack Goldsmith, the embattled head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) (see October 6, 2003), finds himself again mired in a conflict with Vice President Dick Cheney’s hardline chief aide, David Addington. Goldsmith has already fought with Addington over Goldsmith’s decision to withdraw the OLC’s support for the administration’s memos justifying torture (see December 2003-June 2004). Now Goldsmith and Addington are at odds over the policies governing the detention and trial of suspected terrorists. The spark for this conflict is the January 2004 Supreme Court decision to review the detention of US citizen and suspected “enemy combatant” Yaser Esam Hamdi (see January 9, 2004). Goldsmith suggests going to Congress to have that body pass legislation declaring such detention legal, reasoning that the Supreme Court would be less likely to rule against the administration if Congress had authorized such detention policies. Addington, who like his boss does not accept the idea that Congress has any business interfering in such policy decisions, refuses to countenance the idea, and Goldsmith’s proposal goes nowhere. In June 2004, the Supreme Court approves the detention policies but put modest legal restrictions on the administration’s ability to detain citizens without trial. Goldsmith, this time with deputy solicitor general Paul Clement, again suggests going to Congress; once again, Addington refuses. The White House, Goldsmith later says, continues to operate as if it could avoid any adverse decisions from the Supreme Court. When the Court issues its decision in the Hamdan case (see November 8, 2004), rejecting the administration’s policy of trying terror suspects in military tribunals without Congressional approval, and upholding the preeminence of the Third Geneva Convention in protecting the rights of accused terror detainees—including al-Qaeda suspects—the decision has a shattering effect on the Bush administration’s legal arguments towards detaining and trying those suspects. Goldsmith believes the Court’s decision is “legally erroneous” but has huge political consequences. Now detainees at Guantanamo Bay have more legal rights than ever before, and for the first time, the specter of war-crimes charges against Bush officials becomes a real possibility. Goldsmith later says that it is in these arguments, more than in the battles over domestic wiretapping or interrogation techniques, that Addington’s attempts to expand presidential power actually backfires. Goldsmith is later vindicated when, in September 2006, one of the last acts of the Republican-led Congress will give the administration every power the administration had asked for, authorizing the military commissions that the Court had rejected. The Bush administration could have avoided a damaging Court decision by working with Congress beforehand. “I’m not a civil libertarian, and what I did wasn’t driven by concerns about civil liberties per se,” he says in a 2007 interview. “It was a disagreement about means, not ends, driven by a desire to make sure that the administration’s counterterrorism policies had a firm legal foundation.” [New York Times Magazine, 9/9/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Yaser Esam Hamdi, US Supreme Court, Paul Clement, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), David S. Addington, Jack Goldsmith, Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement appears before the Supreme Court to argue for the administration in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004). Clement argues that the Court has no role in the White House’s decision to hold suspected terrorists designated as “enemy combatants” without trial or charge. During oral arguments, several of the justices ask Clement if the Bush administration considers itself bound by the Convention against Torture (see October 21, 1994). Clement replies, “The United States is signatory to conventions that prohibit torture and that sort of thing, and the United States is going to honor its treaty obligations.” He continues: “I wouldn’t want there to be any misunderstanding about this. It’s also the judgment of those involved in this process that the last thing you want to do is torture somebody or do something along those lines.” That evening, CBS’s 60 Minutes II airs the first photos of tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib (see April 28, 2004). [Oral Arguments, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 4/28/2004 pdf file; Savage, 2007, pp. 188-189]

Entity Tags: Convention Against Torture, Paul Clement, US Supreme Court, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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