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Context of 'October 19, 2006: New York Times Errs in Saying Military Commissions Act Does Not Apply to US Citizens'

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Patrick Philbin, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, writes a lengthy and detailed memo arguing that the president may establish so-called “military commissions” for the trial and disposition of terror suspects without involvement in the US criminal justice system. Furthermore, Philbin opines, the president may do so without the approval or even the knowledge of Congress. [US Department of Justice, 11/6/2001 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] Philbin’s central argument is that 9/11 was an act of war, not a crime, and therefore the attacks triggered the president’s full array of war powers, including the inherent authority to create military commissions. Philbin cites a 1942 case where then-President Roosevelt created a military commission to try eight Nazi saboteurs captured inside the US during the first year of America’s involvement in World War II (see 1942); even though the Supreme Court backed Roosevelt, he felt unsure of the legality of such commissions, and did not use them in later trials of captured saboteurs. Since World War II, the laws of war have undergone drastic revisions, with Congress enacting the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which said that if military commissions were ever to be used again, they should use, as much as is practical, the same procedures and defendant rights as are found in military courts-martial. The Senate had also ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which granted all wartime prisoners the right to a fair trial. Philbin’s memo ignores everything except the 1942 military commissions, and argues that if the president has the inherent and exclusive right to set up military commissions, as the Supreme Court had found, then Congress has no authority to restrict that right. [Savage, 2007, pp. 136-137]

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Geneva Conventions, George W. Bush, Patrick F. Philbin, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin sends a classified memo to Daniel Bryant, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, concerning the “Swift Justice Authorization Act.” The memo states that Congress has no power to interfere with President Bush’s authority to act as commander in chief to control US actions during wartime, including Bush’s authority to promulgate military commissions to try and sentence suspected terrorists and other detainees taken by the US as part of its “war on terror.” Philbin’s colleague, OLC lawyer John Yoo, will cite this memo in his 2003 memo concerning the military interrogation of so-called enemy combatants (see March 14, 2003). [US Department of Justice, 4/8/2002 pdf file; American Civil Liberties Union [PDF], 1/28/2009 pdf file] The memo will be made public in early 2009 (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: Office of Legal Counsel (DOJ), Patrick F. Philbin, US Department of Justice, Daniel Bryant, John C. Yoo

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The New York Times pens an editorial issuing a grim warning about the ramifications of the newly passed Military Commission Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006). The editorial calls the law’s stripping of habeas corpus rights for so-called “enemy combatants” “undemocratic.” It criticizes the highly charged rhetoric of the Republicans who attacked Democrats in opposition to the law as part of the Republican Party’s “scare-America-first strategy” for the upcoming midterm elections. The Times notes that President Bush misled the country into believing that the MCA is the only way the country has of adequately putting 9/11 suspects on trial: “The truth is that Mr. Bush could have done that long ago, but chose to detain them illegally at hidden CIA camps to extract information. He sent them to Guantanamo only to stampede Congress into passing the new law. The 60 or so men at Guantanamo who are now facing tribunals—out of about 450 inmates—also could have been tried years ago if Mr. Bush had not rebuffed efforts by Congress to create suitable courts. He imposed a system of kangaroo courts that was more about expanding his power than about combating terrorism.” The editorial criticizes Bush’s new “separate system of justice for any foreigner whom Mr. Bush chooses to designate as an ‘illegal enemy combatant,” one that “raises insurmountable obstacles for prisoners to challenge their detentions [and] does not require the government to release prisoners who are not being charged, or a prisoner who is exonerated by the tribunals.” However, the editorial gives false comfort to its readers by asserting that the MCA “does not apply to American citizens, but it does apply to other legal United States residents.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Times Errs in Stating MCA Does Not Apply to US Citizens - Most other mainstream media outlets do not mention the possibility of the MCA applying to US citizens. But on the same day as the Times editorial, author and investigative journalist Robert Parry gives a powerful argument that the MCA can indeed be applied to them. The MCA reads in part, “Any person is punishable as a principal under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission.… Any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States… shall be punished as a military commission… may direct.” The legal meaning of “any person,” Parry notes, clearly includes US citizens, particularly those who may act “in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States.” Parry asks, “Who has ‘an allegiance or duty to the United States’ if not an American citizen? That provision would not presumably apply to Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, nor would it apply generally to foreign citizens. This section of the law appears to be singling out American citizens.” If an American citizen is charged with a crime under the MCA, that citizen, like the foreign nationals currently laboring under the weight of the law, cannot challenge their detention and charges under the habeas corpus provisions of US law, and cannot expect a fair trial. They will not be given the chance to appeal their convictions until they are prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. And since the MCA defendant has no right to a “speedy trial,” that defendant cannot expect to be granted an appeal in any reasonable length of time. In effect, an American citizen, like a foreign national charged under the MCA, can be imprisoned indefinitely without recourse to the US judiciary.
Potential to Jail Media Leakers and Reporters - One aspect of the MCA that has not been widely discussed, Parry notes, is the provision that would allow the incarceration of “any person” who “collects or attempts to collect information by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States.” That provision is tremendously vague, and could easily be stretched to fit, for example, the whistleblowers who revealed the existence of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program to the Times (see December 15, 2005) and the reporters and editors who published the story based on those revelations. [Consortium News, 10/19/2006] Six months later, a Justice Department lawyer will confirm that the Bush administration believes MCA does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Military Commissions Act, New York Times, US Department of Justice, Robert Parry

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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