Profile: Military Commissions Act
Military Commissions Act was a participant or observer in the following events:
Bush acknowledging the secret CIA prison network. [Source: Gerald Herbert / Associated Press]In a speech, President Bush acknowledges a network of secret CIA prisons and announces plans to try 14 top al-Qaeda terrorist suspects in military tribunals. [Knight Ridder, 9/6/2006]
Admits Existence of Detainees in CIA Custody - Bush tells his listeners: “In addition to the terrorists held at Guantanamo, a small number of suspected terrorist leaders and operatives captured during the war have been held and questioned outside the United States, in a separate program operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.… Many specifics of this program, including where these detainees have been held and the details of their confinement, cannot be divulged.… We knew that Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002) had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking.… As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures… The procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary.… These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used—I think you understand why.” Bush then adds that Zubaida “began to provide information on key al-Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September 11” (see June 2002). Another high-value detainee, 9/11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (see Shortly After February 29 or March 1, 2003), provided “many details of other plots to kill innocent Americans” (see March 7 - Mid-April, 2003 and August 6, 2007). [Vanity Fair, 12/16/2008; New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] The 14 prisoners will be put on trial as soon as Congress enacts the Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006), which he is sending to Congress for its approval today. [Savage, 2007, pp. 308-309]
Political Reasons to Acknowledge CIA Prisons - The US government has never officially acknowledged the existence of the CIA prisons before, despite numerous media accounts about them. Bush’s speech comes less than two months before midterm Congressional elections and also comes as the White House is preparing new legislation to legalize the CIA’s detention program and shield US officials from prosecution for possible war crimes. Knight Ridder comments that the speech “appeared to be intended to give him more leverage in his negotiations with Congress over how to try suspected terrorists.… In addition to the potential political benefits, Bush had other reasons to make the program public. A Supreme Court ruling in June struck down the administration’s plan to bring terrorist suspects before military tribunals and called into question the legality of secret CIA detentions.” [Knight Ridder, 9/6/2006]
Sites Closed Down? - Other administration officials say the CIA prison network has been closed down, at least for the time being. (In fact, it will be reopened a short time later (see Autumn 2006-Late April 2007).) Reportedly, “fewer than 100” suspects had ever been in CIA custody. It is not known who they were or what happened to all of them, but most of them reportedly were returned to their home countries for prosecution. Fourteen “high-value” suspects, including accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were transferred from the secret CIA prisons to the prison in Guantanamo, Cuba in the days just prior to Bush’s speech (see September 2-3, 2006).
Torture is 'against [US] Values' - Bush says: “I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world: The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it—and I will not authorize it.” However, he says the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against “humiliating and degrading treatment” could potentially cause legal problems for CIA interrogators. Other administration officials say harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding were used in the CIA prisons. Such techniques are considered by many to be forms of torture. Bush claims that information gleaned from interrogations in the secret prisons helped thwart attacks on the US and provided valuable information about al-Qaeda operations around the world. [Knight Ridder, 9/6/2006; Washington Post, 9/7/2006]
Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean is troubled by the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) currently under consideration in Congress. The MCA authorizes military tribunals instead of criminal court trials for suspected terrorists. Dean supported the idea of tribunals when they were first suggested in 2001, but, he writes: “[T]he devil… arrived later with the details. It never occurred to me (and most people) that Bush & Co. would design a system more befitting a totalitarian state than a democratic nation that once led the world by its good example.” After a previous tribunal procedure was struck down by the Supreme Court (see June 30, 2006), Bush sent another proposal to Congress in early September. Where the bill did not actively rewrite the Court’s findings, it ignored them altogether, Dean writes. Dean finds the law a stunning reversal of decades—centuries, in some instances—of US jurisprudence and international law, including its dismissal of Geneva protections, its retroactive protection for US officials who may have tortured detainees, and its dismissal of habeas corpus rights for detainees. Dean calls the proposed legislation “shameful,” and writes: “This proposal… is going to tell us a great deal about where we are as a nation, for as General [Colin] Powell said, ‘The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine [the Geneva Conventions] would add to those doubts.’ As will amending the war crimes law to absolve prior wrongs, denying detainees ‘a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples,’ and enacting a law that insults the Supreme Court.” [FindLaw, 9/22/2006]
The Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) is characterized by many as not applying to US citizens. Law professor Marty Lederman disagrees. Under the MCA, Lederman says, “if the Pentagon says you’re an unlawful enemy combatant—using whatever criteria they wish—then as far as Congress, and US law, is concerned, you are one, whether or not you have had any connection to ‘hostilities’ at all.” [Unclaimed Territory, 9/28/2006] Six months later, an administration lawyer will confirm that the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Amnesty International logo. [Source: Amnesty International]Amnesty International objects to the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) currently being passed by Congress. It comments, “With the passing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress has turned bad executive policy into bad law.” [Amnesty International, 9/28/2006]
Glenn Greenwald. [Source: Mother Jones]Former civil litigator Glenn Greenwald writes that the upcoming passage of the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) is nothing less than “legalizing tyranny in the United States. Period.” Greenwald puts the responsibility on both “the authoritarian Bush administration and its sickeningly submissive loyalists in Congress.” Greenwald continues: “There is a profound and fundamental difference between an Executive engaging in shadowy acts of lawlessness and abuses of power on the one hand, and, on the other, having the American people, through their Congress, endorse, embrace and legalize that behavior out in the open, with barely a peep of real protest. Our laws reflect our values and beliefs. And our laws are about to explicitly codify one of the most dangerous and defining powers of tyranny—one of the very powers this country was founded in order to prevent.” [Unclaimed Territory, 9/28/2006]
Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks out against the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which gives the federal government wide latitude to incarcerate and interrogate “terror suspects” without charge or due process of the law (see October 17, 2006). Obama says that “political considerations” for the upcoming midterm elections played a significant role in the timing of the bill, but “what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics. This is serious. If this was a debate with obvious ideological differences—heartfelt convictions that couldn’t be settled by compromise—I would understand. But it’s not.” Obama notes that in five years of the Bush administration’s system of military tribunals, “not one terrorist has been tried. Not one has been convicted. And in the end, the Supreme Court of the United States found the whole thing unconstitutional (see June 30, 2006), which is why we’re here today. We could have fixed all of this in a way that allows us to detain and interrogate and try suspected terrorists while still protecting the accidentally accused from spending their lives locked away in Guantanamo Bay. Easily. This was not an either-or question.” Congress could have written and passed legislation that would have established “a real military system of justice that would sort out the suspected terrorists from the accidentally accused,” one that would be in line with domestic law and the Geneva Conventions. Instead, “politics won today.… The administration got its vote, and now it will have its victory lap, and now they will be able to go out on the campaign trail and tell the American people that they were the ones who were tough on the terrorists.” Meanwhile, Obama says, questions about the efficacy and legality of the Bush system of justice persist, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are regrouping “while we look the other way,” and the administration is bent on fighting a war in Iraq “that our own government’s intelligence says is serving as al-Qaeda’s best recruitment tool.… This is not how a serious administration would approach the problem of terrorism.” [US Senate, 9/28/2006]
The newly passed Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006) gives the executive branch sweeping new powers sought by President Bush and Vice President Cheney since the 9/11 attacks, according to a New York Times analysis. Reporters Scott Shane and Adam Liptak write, “Rather than reining in the formidable presidential powers Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have asserted since Sept. 11, 2001, the law gives some of those powers a solid statutory foundation. In effect it allows the president to identify enemies, imprison them indefinitely, and interrogate them—albeit with a ban on the harshest treatment—beyond the reach of the full court reviews traditionally afforded criminal defendants and ordinary prisoners. Taken as a whole, the law will give the president more power over terrorism suspects than he had before the Supreme Court decision this summer in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that undercut more than four years of White House policy” (see June 30, 2006). The MCA “does not just allow the president to determine the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions; it also strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear challenges to his interpretation.” Additionally, it gives Bush and his designees the absolute, unchallenged power to define anyone they choose as an “enemy combatant,” thereby stripping them of any traditional US legal protections and placing them under the far harsher and restrictive rubric of the MCA. “Over all, the legislation reallocates power among the three branches of government, taking authority away from the judiciary and handing it to the president.” Law professor Bruce Ackerman notes, “The president walked away with a lot more than most people thought. [The MCA] further entrenches presidential power” and allows the administration to declare even an American citizen an unlawful combatant subject to indefinite detention. “And it’s not only about these prisoners,” says Ackerman. “If Congress can strip courts of jurisdiction over cases because it fears their outcome, judicial independence is threatened.” [New York Times, 9/30/2006]
Joanne Mariner, an attorney with the civil liberties organization Human Rights Watch, calls the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006) “exceedingly harmful” and a “grab-bag of unnecessary and abusive measures” that creates for detainees “a system of justice that is far inferior to that of the federal courts and courts-martial.” The bill does not directly address detention, Mariner writes, but does nothing to limit detention and, she believes, will be used by the administration to justify its current detention practices. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act (MCA) into law. [White House, 10/17/2006] The MCA is designed to give the president the authority to order “enemy detainees” tried by military commissions largely outside the scope of US civil and criminal procedures. The bill was requested by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004) that the US could not hold prisoners indefinitely without access to the US judicial system, and that the administration’s proposal that they be tried by military tribunals was unconstitutional (see June 28, 2004). [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] It is widely reported that the MCA does not directly apply to US citizens, but to only non-citizens defined as “enemy combatants. [CBS News, 10/19/2006] However, six months later, a Bush administration lawyer will confirm that the administration believes the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Sweeping New Executive Powers - The MCA virtually eliminates the possibility that the Supreme Court can ever again act as a check on a president’s power in the war on terrorism. Similarly, the law gives Congressional approval to many of the executive powers previously, and unilaterally, seized by the Bush administration. Former Justice Department official John Yoo celebrates the MCA, writing, “Congress… told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror” (see October 19, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 319, 322]
'Abandoning' Core 'Principles' - The bill passed the Senate on a 65-34 vote, and the House by a 250-170 vote. The floor debate was often impassioned and highly partisan; House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called Democrats who opposed the bill “dangerous,” and Senate Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this bill showed that the US is losing its “moral compass.” Leahy asked during the debate, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had said he would vote against it because it is “patently unconstitutional on its face,” but then voted for it, saying he believes the courts will eventually “clean it up.” Specter’s attempt to amend the bill to provide habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants was defeated, as were four Democratic amendments. Republicans have openly used the debate over the MCA as election-year fodder, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) saying after the vote that “House Democrats have voted to protect the rights of terrorists,” and Boehner decrying “the Democrats’ irrational opposition to strong national security policies.” Democrats such as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) say they will not fight back at such a level. “There will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be called everything from cut-and-run quitters to Defeatocrats, to people who care more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans,” Obama says. “While I know all of this, I’m still disappointed, and I’m still ashamed, because what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics.” [Washington Post, 10/19/2006] After winning the vote, Hastert accused Democrats who opposed the bill of “putting their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America.” Hastert said the Democrats “would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans’ lives” and create “new rights for terrorists.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Enemy Combatants - The MCA applies only to “enemy combatants.” Specifically, the law defines an “unlawful enemy combatant” as a person “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents,” and who is not a lawful combatant. Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch says the definition far exceeds the traditionally accepted definition of combatant as someone who directly participates in hostilities. But under the MCA, someone who provides “material support” for terrorists—whether that be in the form of financial contributions or sweeping the floors at a terrorist camp—can be so defined. Worse, the label can be applied without recourse by either Bush or the secretary of defense, after a “competent tribunal” makes the determination. The MCA provides no guidelines as to what criteria these tribunals should use. Taken literally, the MCA gives virtually unrestricted power to the tribunals to apply the label as requested by the president or the secretary. Mariner believes the definition is both “blatantly unconstitutional” and a direct contradiction of centuries of Supreme Court decisions that define basic judicial rights. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] Under this definition, the president can imprison, without charge or trial, any US citizen accused of donating money to a Middle East charity that the government believes is linked to terrorist activity. Citizens associated with “fringe” groups such as the left-wing Black Panthers or right-wing militias can be incarcerated without trial or charge. Citizens accused of helping domestic terrorists can be so imprisoned. Law professor Bruce Ackerman calls the MCA “a massive Congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants,” and warns that the law may “haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack” by enabling a round of mass detentions similar to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. [Savage, 2007, pp. 322]
Military Commissions - The MCA mandates that enemy combatants are to be tried by military commissions, labeled “regularly constituted courts that afford all the necessary ‘judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples’ for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” The commissions must have a minimum of five commissioned military officers and a military judge; if death is a possible penalty, the commissions must have at least 12 officers. The defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; convictions require a two-thirds vote. Sentences of beyond 10 years require a three-quarters vote, and death penalties must be unanimously voted for. Defendants may either represent themselves or by military or civilian counsel. The court procedures themselves, although based on standard courts-martial proceedings, are fluid, and can be set or changed as the secretary of defense sees fit. Statements obtained through methods defined as torture are inadmissible, but statements take by coercion and “cruel treatment” can be admitted. The MCA sets the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) as a benchmark—statements obtained before the December 30, 2005 enactment of that law can be used, even if the defendant was “coerced,” if a judge finds the statement “reasonable and possessing sufficient probative value.” Statements after that date must have been taken during interrogations that fall under the DTA guidelines. Defendants have the right to examine and respond to evidence seen by the commission, a provision originally opposed by the administration. However, if the evidence is classified, an unclassified summary of that material is acceptable, and classified exculpatory evidence can be denied in lieu of what the MCA calls “acceptable substitutes.” Hearsay evidence is admissible, as is evidence obtained without search warrants. Generally, defendants will not be allowed to inquire into the classified “sources, methods, or activities” surrounding evidence against them. Some human rights activists worry that evidence obtained through torture can be admitted, and the fact that it was obtained by torture, if that detail is classified, will not be presented to the court or preclude the evidence from being used. Public access to the commissions will be quite limited. Many experts claim these commissions are illegal both by US constitutional law and international law. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
Secret Courts - The military tribunals can be partially or completely closed to public scrutiny if the presiding judge deems such an action necessary to national security. The government can convey such concerns to the judge without the knowledge of the defense. The judge can exclude the accused from the trial if he deems it necessary for safety or if he decides the defendant is “disruptive.” Evidence can be presented in secret, without the knowledge of the defense and without giving the defense a chance to examine that evidence, if the judge finds that evidence “reliable.” And during the trial, the prosecution can at any time assert a “national security privilege” that would stop “the examination of any witness” if that witness shows signs of discussing sensitive security matters. This provision can easily be used to exclude any potential defense witness who might “breach national security” with their testimony. Author and investigative reporter Robert Parry writes, “In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel ‘star chamber’ system for the prosecution, imprisonment, and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.” [Consortium News, 10/19/2006]
Appeals - Guilty verdicts are automatically appealed to a Court of Military Commission Review, consisting of three appellate military justices. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has extremely limited authority of review of the commissions; even its authority to judge whether a decision is consistent with the Constitution is limited “to the extent [that the Constitution is] applicable.”
Types of Crimes - Twenty-eight specific crimes fall under the rubric of the military commissions, including conspiracy (not a traditional war crime), murder of protected persons, murder in violation of the bill of war, hostage-taking, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse or assault, hijacking, terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
CIA Abuses - The MCA, responding to the recent Supreme Court decision of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) that found the CIA’s secret detention program and abusive interrogation practices illegal, redefines and amends the law to make all but the most pernicious interrogation practices, even those defined as torture by the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, legal. The MCA actually rules that the Geneva Conventions are all but unenforceable in US courts. It also provides retroactive protection under the law to all actions as far back as November 1997. Under the MCA, practices such as waterboarding, stress positioning, and sleep deprivation cannot be construed as torture. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] The MCA even states that rape as part of interrogations cannot be construed as torture unless the intent of the rapist to torture his victim can be proven, a standard rejected by international law. The MCA provides such a narrow definition of coercion and sexual abuse that most of the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib are now legal. [Jurist, 10/4/2006] Although the MCA seems to cover detainee abuse for all US agencies, including the CIA, Bush says during the signing of the bill, “This bill will allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives.” International law expert Scott Horton will note, “The administration wanted these prohibitions on the military and not on the CIA, but it did not work out that way.” Apparently Bush intends to construe the law to exempt the CIA from its restrictions, such as they are, on torture and abuse of prisoners. [Salon, 5/22/2007]
No Habeas Corpus Rights - Under the MCA, enemy combatants no longer have the right to file suit under the habeas corpus provision of US law. This means that they cannot challenge the legality of their detention, or raise claims of torture and mistreatment. Even detainees who have been released can never file suit to seek redress for their treatment while in US captivity. [FindLaw, 10/25/2006]
Retroactive Immunity - The administration added a provision to the MCA that rewrote the War Crimes Act retroactively to November 26, 1997, making any offenses considered war crimes before the MCA is adopted no longer punishable under US law. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2007 that the only reason he can fathom for the change is to protect administration officials—perhaps including President Bush himself—from any future prosecutions as war criminals. Dean will note that if the administration actually believes in the inherent and indisputable powers of the presidency, as it has long averred, then it would not worry about any such criminal liability. [Dean, 2007, pp. 239-240]
Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, Joanne Mariner, US Supreme Court, Patrick J. Leahy, Military Commissions Act, John Dean, George W. Bush, Scott Horton, Geneva Conventions, Bruce Ackerman, Dennis Hastert, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Detainee Treatment Act, Arlen Specter, War Crimes Act, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Boehner
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).
Keith Olbermann. [Source: Spidered News.com]MSNBC political commentator Keith Olbermann says that the nation has passed a grim milestone with the passage of the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006). By accepting this law, Olbermann says, the nation has accepted that to fight the terrorists, the US government must become “just a little bit like the terrorists.” But the ultimate threat to the nation is not terrorists, Olbermann says, it is George W. Bush himself. “We have a long and painful history of ignoring the prophecy attributed to Benjamin Franklin that ‘those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’” Speaking directly to President Bush, Olbermann continues: “But even within this history we have not before codified the poisoning of habeas corpus (see March 28, 2007), that wellspring of protection from which all essential liberties flow. You, sir, have now befouled that spring. You, sir, have now given us chaos and called it order. You, sir, have now imposed subjugation and called it freedom. For the most vital, the most urgent, the most inescapable of reasons. And—again, Mr. Bush—all of them, wrong.” The MCA gives Bush a “blank check drawn against our freedom to a man who may now, if he so decides, declare not merely any non-American citizens ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ and ship them somewhere—anywhere—but may now, if he so decides, declare you an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ and ship you somewhere—anywhere” (see September 28, 2006). Habeas corpus is now “gone” for those in the prison camps, Olbermann says, and Geneva Conventions protections are “optional.” He concludes: “The moral force we shined outwards to the world as an eternal beacon, and inwards at ourselves as an eternal protection? Snuffed out. These things you have done, Mr. Bush, they would be ‘the beginning of the end of America.’” [MSNBC, 10/19/2006]
John Yoo, a former Justice Department official, celebrates the passage of the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006). Yoo writes that Congress has ordered “the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror.” The bill is not so much a victory for the presidency, Yoo writes, as it is a loss for the judiciary, a “stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court. It strips the courts of jurisdiction to hear any habeas corpus claim filed by any alien enemy combatant anywhere in the world.” It supersedes the Court’s ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), which Yoo calls “an unprecedented attempt by the court to rewrite the law of war and intrude into war policy… [a] stunning power grab.” Now, he writes: “Congress and the president did not take the court’s power grab lying down. They told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror, stripped them of habeas jurisdiction over alien enemy combatants, and said there was nothing wrong with the military commissions. It is the first time since the New Deal that Congress had so completely divested the courts of power over a category of cases. It is also the first time since the Civil War that Congress saw fit to narrow the court’s habeas powers in wartime because it disagreed with its decisions. The law goes farther. It restores to the president command over the management of the war on terror. It directly reverses Hamdan by making clear that the courts cannot take up the Geneva Conventions. Except for some clearly defined war crimes, whose prosecution would also be up to executive discretion, it leaves interpretation and enforcement of the treaties up to the president. It even forbids courts from relying on foreign or international legal decisions in any decisions involving military commissions.” Yoo had previously authored numerous torture memos (see October 4, 2001, November 6-10, 2001, November 20, 2001, December 21, 2001, December 28, 2001, January 9, 2002, January 11, 2002, January 14, 2002, January 22, 2002, January 24-26, 2002, March 13, 2002, July 22, 2002, August 1, 2002, August 1, 2002, and March 14, 2003) and opinions expanding the power of the president (see September 21, 2001, September 25, 2001, September 25, 2001, October 23, 2001, October 23, 2001, and June 27, 2002). [Wall Street Journal, 10/19/2006]
Exercising its new authority under the just-signed Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006), the Bush administration notifies the US District Court in Washington that it no longer has jurisdiction to consider 196 habeas corpus petitions filed by Guantanamo detainees. Many of these petitions cover multiple detainees. According to the MCA, “no court, justice, or judge” can consider those petitions or other actions related to treatment or imprisonment filed by anyone designated as an enemy combatant, now or in the future. The MCA is already being challenged as unconstitutional by several lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees. The MCA goes directly against two recent Supreme Court cases, Rasul v. Bush (see June 28, 2004) and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), which provide detainees with habeas corpus and other fundamental legal rights. Many Congressional members and legal experts say that the anti-habeas provisions of the MCA are unconstitutional. For instance, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) notes that the Constitution says the right of any prisoner to challenge detention “shall not be suspended” except in cases of “rebellion or invasion.” [Washington Post, 10/20/2006] Law professor Joseph Margulies, who is involved in the detainee cases, says the administration’s persistence on the issue “demonstrates how difficult it is for the courts to enforce [the clause] in the face of a resolute executive branch that is bound and determined to resist it.” Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many of the detainees, expects the legal challenges to the law will eventually wind up before the Supreme Court. [Washington Post, 10/20/2006]
The Justice Department argues in federal court that immigrants arrested in the US and labeled as “enemy combatants” under the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) can be indefinitely detained without access to the US justice system. The argument comes as part of the Justice Department’s attempt to dismiss a habeas corpus suit challenging the detention of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari citizen accused by the government of being an al-Qaeda agent (see December 12, 2001 and February 1, 2007). The government argues that the MCA “removes federal court jurisdiction over pending and future habeas corpus actions and any other actions filed by or on behalf of detained aliens determined by the United States to be enemy combatants, such as petitioner-appellant al-Marri.… In plain terms, the MCA removes this Court’s jurisdiction (as well as the district court’s) over al-Marri’s habeas action. Accordingly, the Court should dismiss this appeal for lack of jurisdiction and remand the case to the district court with instructions to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction.” This is the first time the Bush administration has argued in court that the MCA strips a detainee held within the US of habeas rights.
Defense Counterargument - Al-Marri’s lawyers say that because he is being held in a South Carolina detention facility, he has the right to challenge his detention in a civilian court like any other non-citizen held on criminal charges. The Justice Department says that enemy combatants have no such rights regardless of where they are being held. Jonathan Hafetz, one of al-Marri’s lawyers, says: “[T]he president has announced that he can sweep any of the millions of non-citizens off the streets of America and imprison them for life in a military jail without charge, court review, or due process. It is unprecedented, unlawful, and un-American.” [Jurist, 11/14/2006] The government has “never admitted that he has any rights, including the right not to be tortured,” Hafetz adds. “They’ve created a black hole where he has no rights.” [Progressive, 3/2007] The Bush administration is also challenging lawsuits filed by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility on similar grounds. [Jurist, 11/14/2006]
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stuns Senate Judiciary Committee questioners when he says that the fundamental right of habeas corpus, the right for an accused person to go to court and challenge his or her imprisonment, is not protected by the Constitution. Gonzales, in response to questions by Arlen Specter (R-PA), says: “The Constitution doesn’t say every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas.… There is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There’s a prohibition against taking it away.” Specter is incredulous, asking how the Constitution could bar the suspension of a right that didn’t exist—a right, he notes, that was first recognized in medieval England as protection against the king’s power to send subjects to royal dungeons. Gonzales does say that habeas corpus is “one of our most cherished rights,” and admits that Congress has protected that right. But Gonzales refuses to acknowledge that the Constitution itself protects the right. If the Constitution does not, then Congress would be able to limit or nullify habeas corpus rights if it so chooses. Congress has not passed such an all-encompassing law yet, but it has passed a law, the Military Commissions Act, that strips the courts of any authority to hear habeas corpus suits filed by “enemy combatants.”
Experts Fear Government Encroachment on Civil Liberties - But constitutional experts on both the left and the right say that Gonzales’s position implies a far broader power. Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor who has frequently criticized the Bush administration, says: “This is the key protection that people have if they’re held in violation of the law. If there’s no habeas corpus, and if the government wants to pick you or me off the street and hold us indefinitely, how do we get our release?” Former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec agrees. If Gonzales’s view prevails, Kmiec says, “one of the basic protections of human liberty against the powers of the state would be embarrassingly absent from our constitutional system.” A Justice Department spokesman says that Gonzales is only noting the absence of a specific constitutional guarantee for habeas corpus, and acknowledges that the Supreme Court has declared “the Constitution protects [habeas corpus] as it existed at common law” in England. These rights, the spokesman says, do not apply to foreigners held as enemy combatants. [San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/2007]
Habeas Protected in Constitution - The right of habeas corpus is clear in Article I, Section 9, Clause 2 of the Constitution: “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” [Think Progress, 1/19/2007]
Expansion of Presidential Powers - Former Reagan Justice Department attorney Bruce Fein says that Gonzales’s stance on habeas corpus is an underpinning of the Bush administration’s attempt to advocate the “unitary executive” theory of presidential power. Gonzales’s statements contain a message: “Congress doesn’t have to let [judges] decide national security matters. It’s part of an attempt to create the idea that during conflicts, the three branches of government collapse into one, and it is the president.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 1/24/2007]
Entity Tags: Senate Judiciary Committee, Military Commissions Act, George W. Bush, Patrick J. Leahy, Erwin Chemerinsky, Central Intelligence Agency, Alberto R. Gonzales, Arlen Specter, Douglas Kmiec, Bush administration (43), Bruce Fein
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The Bush administration confirms that it believes US citizens can be designated as “enemy combatants” under the Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006). The confirmation comes during the trial of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari and the only person on the American mainland being held as an enemy combatant. Al-Marri, currently held at the Charleston, South Carolina Naval brig, is a legal US resident accused of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda (see September 10, 2001). He was arrested in December 2001, while living with his family and studying computer science at Bradley University in Illinois. Al-Marri is charged, not with any direct terrorist activities, but with credit card fraud and lying to federal agents. He is challenging his indefinite detention in federal court, and the government is using the MCA to argue that al-Marri has no status in the courts because of his designation as an enemy combatant. One of the appellate court judges, Roger Gregory, asks Justice Department lawyer David Salmons, “What would prevent you from plucking up anyone and saying, ‘You are an enemy combatant?’” Salmons responds that the government can do just that, without interference from the courts, and adds, “A citizen, no less than an alien, can be an enemy combatant.” Gregory and the second of the three appellate judges, Diana Gribbon Motz, seem uncomfortable with the law’s provisions that the US judiciary has no role in such designations. When Motz asks Salmons about the difference between nations making war and individuals committing acts of terrorism, Salmons retorts with a familiar, and long-disputed, argument that the US Congress gave the government the right to detain terrorist suspects without charge or recourse to the judiciary when it granted the administration the right to use military force against terrorists after the 9/11 attacks (see September 14-18, 2001).
Theoretically Declaring War on PETA - Motz is skeptical of the argument, and asks a series of hypothetical questions about just what organizations or individuals President Bush could designate as enemy combatants. Using the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as an example, Motz asks, “Could the president declare war on PETA?” Salmons says the question is unrealistic, but refuses to say that Bush could not do so if he chose. The Bush administration is careful in its use of the enemy combatant designation, Salmons says, therefore, “The representative of PETA can sleep well at night.” [New York Times, 2/2/2007]
Ignoring Constitutional Concept of 'Inalienable Rights' - Author and investigative journalist Robert Parry notes that in the al-Marri case, the Bush administration is arguing against the concept of “inalienable,” or “unalienable,” rights as granted by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. According to the administration, as long as the US is embroiled in what it calls the “war on terror,” Bush can use his “plenary,” or unlimited, executive powers to essentially waive laws and ignore Constitutional rights if he so chooses. Parry writes that “since the ‘war on terror’ will go on indefinitely and since the ‘battlefield’ is everywhere, Bush is asserting the president’s right to do whatever he wants to whomever he wants wherever the person might be, virtually forever.” Parry concludes, “The Justice Department’s arguments in the [al-]Marri case underscore that Bush still sees himself as a modern-day version of the absolute monarch who gets to decide which rights and freedoms his subjects can enjoy and which ones will be denied.” [Consortium News, 2/3/2007]
Entity Tags: Military Commissions Act, Bush administration (43), Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Al-Qaeda, David Salmons, George W. Bush, Robert Parry, Roger Gregory, Diana Gribbon Motz, US Department of Justice, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Attorneys for accused al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see December 12, 2001) challenge his detention as an enemy combatant (see June 23, 2003). The attorneys, appearing before a three-judge panel in Richmond’s Fourth US Court of Appeals, say that al-Marri is being held unconstitutionally and should be allowed to challenge his imprisonment in court under his right to habeas corpus. Al-Marri, a Qatari national, is the only person being held as an enemy combatant on US soil. His lawyers argue that he has inalienable rights as a legal resident of the US, including the right to due process and to challenge his accusers in court. One of al-Marri’s lawyers, Jonathan Hafetz, tells the court: “The basic question is whether criminal or military law governs this case. [The president] cannot militarize the case of a man in Peoria with the stroke of a pen.” The government says that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) gives the government the right to hold al-Marri and any other designated enemy combatant indefinitely, without recourse to the courts. Hafetz contends that the MCA doesn’t repeal defendants’ right to challenge their detention. He also says al-Marri was improperly classified as an enemy combatant. Justice Department lawyers argue that the court has no jurisdiction to hear such cases, and that the government has classified evidence proving that al-Marri is indeed an al-Qaeda agent. Judge Diana Gribbon Motz asks Justice Department lawyer David Salmons what would stop Bush from declaring anyone he chose an enemy combatant, even if that person was a citizen of a nation not at war with the US. “What I don’t understand is how you make one an enemy combatant,” she says. “What did the president look to, to call someone an enemy combatant?” Salmons says that Congress and the Supreme Court have granted Bush the authority to fight terrorism, (see September 14-18, 2001) and that authorization grants Bush the right to designate people with suspected al-Qaeda links as enemy combatants. Motz disagrees: “If the US can do this, it’s contrary to the Constitution. It would give other nations the ability to do that by declaring a US citizen an enemy combatant.” Salmons says the 9/11 attacks make the situation different. Al-Marri is supported in the court by, among others, former Attorney General Janet Reno, seven former Justice Department officials, and 29 US law school professors, who all contend that the government’s treatment of al-Marri is unconstitutional and sets a dangerous precedent in depriving US residents of basic legal rights. The case is al-Marri v. Wright, 06-7427. [Associated Press, 2/1/2007]
Thom Hartmann. [Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]Author and talk show host Thom Hartmann issues a call for the repeal of the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006). He frames his argument with a quote from the revered British Conservative Prime Minister, Winston Churchill: “The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.” The MCA is “the most conspicuous part of a series of laws which have fundamentally changed the nature of this nation, moving us from a democratic republic to a state under the rule of a ‘unitary’ president,” Hartmann writes. The MCA is an “attack on eight centuries of English law,” the foundation of US jurisprudence that goes back to 1215 and the Magna Carta. While the MCA’s supporters in and out of the administration give reassurances that the law only applies to non-citizens, Hartmann notes that two US citizens, Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, have already been stripped of their habeas corpus rights. Habeas corpus, Hartmann writes, is featured prominently in Article I of the US Constitution. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was flat wrong in saying that the Constitution provided “no express grant of habeas” (see January 17, 2007), Hartmann writes. “Our Constitution does not grant us rights, because ‘We’ already hold all rights. Instead, it defines the boundaries of our government, and identifies what privileges ‘We the People’ will grant to that government.” The authors of the Constitution “must be turning in their graves,” Hartmann writes, quoting the “most conservative” of those authors, Alexander Hamilton: “The establishment of the writ of habeas corpus… are perhaps greater securities to liberty and republicanism than any it [the Constitution] contains.… [T]he practice of arbitrary imprisonments have been, in all ages, the favorite and most formidable instruments of tyranny.” Hamilton’s colleague Thomas Jefferson said that laws such as habeas corpus make the US government “the strongest government on earth.” Now, Hartmann writes, the strength of that government is imperiled. [CommonDreams (.org), 2/12/2007]
ACLU advertisement against the Military Commissions Act. [Source: ACLU]The American Civil Liberties Union strongly objects to the stripping of habeas corpus rights contained within the Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006). The ACLU observes, “Habeas corpus isn’t a fancy legal term. It’s the freedom from being thrown in prison illegally, with no help and no end in sight. No president should ever be given the power to call someone an enemy, wave his hand, and lock them away indefinitely. The Founders made the president subject to the rule of law. They rejected dungeons and chose due process.” [American Civil Liberties Union, 3/28/2007]
A federal appeals court rules that “enemy combatant” Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see December 12, 2001 and February 1, 2007) must be released from military custody. “To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians,” writes Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, “even if the President calls them ‘enemy combatants,’ would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution—and the country.” She adds, “We refuse to recognize a claim to power that would so alter the constitutional foundations of our Republic.” [New York Times, 6/11/2007] Motz continues, “The president cannot eliminate constitutional protections with the stroke of a pen by proclaiming a civilian, even a criminal civilian, an enemy combatant subject to indefinite military detention.”
Military Commissons Act Does Not Apply - The Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) does not apply to al-Marri, the court rules. [Bloomberg, 6/11/2007] Motz writes that the MCA does not apply to al-Marri and the court also rules that the government failed to prove its argument that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, enacted by Congress immediately after the 9/11 attacks (see September 14-18, 2001), gives President Bush the power to detain al-Marri as an enemy combatant. [Associated Press, 6/11/2007] Motz also notes that even though the government says the MCA applies to al-Marri’s case, it did not follow its own guidelines under that law. The MCA requires all such detainees to be granted a Combat Status Review Tribunal (CRST) determination; all Guantanamo-based detainees have been given such a procedure. Al-Marri has not. The government did not suggest the procedure for al-Marri until the day it filed its motion to dismiss al-Marri’s case. [Christian Science Monitor, 6/13/2007] The case, al-Marri v. Wright, was filed against Navy Commander S.L. Wright, who oversees the Charleston military prison that houses al-Marri. [Bloomberg, 6/11/2007]
Government Arguments Repudiated - The 2-1 decision of the US Court of Appeals in Richmond was written for the majority by Motz. Al-Marri is the only person held on the US mainland as an enemy combatant, and has been held in isolation for four years (see August 8, 2005). The government has alleged since 2002 that al-Marri was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent sent to the US to commit mass murder and disrupt the US banking system (see June 23, 2003). Motz writes that while al-Marri may well be guilty of serious crimes, the government cannot sidestep the US criminal justice system through military detention. The al-Marri ruling apparently does not apply to enemy combatants and other detainees held without charges or legal access at the facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The dissenting judge, Henry Hudson, writes that President Bush “had the authority to detain al-Marri as an enemy combatant or belligerent” because “he is the type of stealth warrior used by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts against the United States.” Hudson is a Bush appointee. Motz and Judge Roger Gregory, the concurring judge, were appointed by former president Bill Clinton. Motz orders the Pentagon to issue a writ of habeas corpus for al-Marri “within a reasonable period of time.” The Pentagon may release him, hold him as a material witness, or charge him in the civilian court system. Al-Marri “can be returned to civilian prosecutors, tried on criminal charges, and, if convicted, punished severely,” she writes, “But military detention of al-Marri must cease.” [New York Times, 6/11/2007; Bloomberg, 6/11/2007]
Democracy Vs. 'Police State' - Hafetz says: “We’re pleased the court saw through the government’s stunning position in this case. Had it not, the executive could effectively disappear people by picking up any immigrant in this country, locking them in a military jail, and holding the keys to the courthouse.… This is exactly what separates a country that is democratic and committed to the rule of law from a country that is a police state.” [Christian Science Monitor, 6/13/2007]
Justice Department to Challenge Decision - The Justice Department intends to challenge the decision (see June 11, 2007 and Late October-Early November, 2007). The case is expected to reach the Supreme Court, and may help define what authority the government has to indefinitely detain terror suspects and to strip detainees of their right to challenge the legality and conditions of their detention. [Associated Press, 6/11/2007] For the time being, al-Marri will remain in military custody in the Charleston naval brig. [Cincinnati Post, 6/12/2007]
Entity Tags: Diana Gribbon Motz, Combat Status Review Tribunal, Al-Qaeda, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, US Department of Justice, Henry Hudson, US Supreme Court, Jonathan Hafetz, US Department of Defense, Military Commissions Act, George W. Bush, S.L. Wright
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties
President Bush signs Executive Order 13440, which authorizes the CIA to continue using so-called “harsh” interrogation methods against anyone in US custody suspected of being a terrorist, or having knowledge of terrorist activities. The order relies on, and reaffirms, Bush’s classification of “al-Qaeda, Taliban, and associated forces” as “unlawful enemy combatants” who are not covered under the Geneva Conventions. The order also emphasizes that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) “reaffirms and reinforces the authority of the president to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.” The order does not include “murder, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, intentionally causing serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault or abuse, taking of hostages, or performing of biological experiments… other acts of violence serious enough to be considered comparable to murder, torture, mutilation, and cruel or inhuman treatment… any other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment prohibited” by law. It also precludes acts of extreme humiliation “that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency, such as sexual or sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, [or] threatening the individual with sexual mutilation, or using the individual as a human shield.” The order also excludes acts that denigrate a detainee’s religion or religious practices. [White House, 7/20/2007] The order does not apply to the Army, which has numerous interrogators operating at Guantanamo and other US detention facilities. [Social Science Research Network, 3/18/2008] CIA Director Michael Hayden says, “We can now focus on our vital work, confident that our mission and authorities are clearly defined.” Administration officials say that because of the order, suspects now in US custody can be moved immediately into the “enhanced interrogation” program. Civil libertarians and human rights advocates are much less enamored of the new order. Human Rights Watch official Tom Malinowski says, “All the order really does is to have the president say, ‘Everything in that other document that I’m not showing you is legal—trust me.’” [Washington Post, 7/21/2007] In January 2009, President Obama will withdraw the order. [Washington Independent, 4/21/2009]
Entity Tags: US Department of the Army, Tom Malinowski, Taliban, George W. Bush, Geneva Conventions, Al-Qaeda, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Military Commissions Act, Michael Hayden
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties
Aziz Huq. [Source: American Prospect]Aziz Huq, an author and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, writes that the Protect America Act (PAA-see August 5, 2007) came about as a result of what he calls “the most recent example of the national security waltz, a three-step administration maneuver for taking defeat and turning it into victory.” Step one is a court defeat for the administration, for example regarding detainees at Guantanamo (see June 28, 2004), or the overruling of military commissions in 2006 (see June 30, 2006). The second step, which comes weeks or months later, is an announcement that the ruling has created a security crisis and must be “remedied” through immediate legislation. The third and final step is the administration pushing legislation through Congress, such as the Detainee Treatment Act (see December 15, 2005) or the Military Commissions Act, that, Huq writes, “not only undoes the good court decision but also inflicts substantial damage to the infrastructure of accountability.”
Step One: FISC Refuses to Approve NSA's Surveillance Program - In January 2007, the administration announced that it was submitting the NSA’s domestic surveillance program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), the secret court that issues FISA warrants for surveillance (see May 1, 2007). This was due to pending court cases threatening to rule the program in violation of FISA and the Fourth Amendment; the administration wanted to forestall, or at least sidestep, those upcoming rulings. In June, FISC refused to approve parts of the NSA program that involved monitoring overseas communications that passed through US telecom switches. Since a tremendous amount of overseas communications are routed through US networks, this ruling jeopardized the NSA’s previous ability to wiretap such communications virtually at will without a warrant. The administration objected to the NSA having to secure such warrants.
Step Two: The Drumbeat Begins - Months later, the drumbeat for new legislation to give the NSA untrammeled rights to monitor “overseas” communications, which not only traveled through US networks, but often began or ended with US citizens, began with appearances in the right-wing media by administration supporters, where they insisted that the FISC ruling was seriously hampering the NSA’s ability to garner much-needed intelligence on terrorist plots against the US. The White House and Congressional Republicans drafted legislation giving the NSA what it wanted, and presented it during the last week of the Congressional session, minimizing the time needed for scrutiny of the legislation as well as reducing the time available for meaningful debate.
Step Three: Passing a Law With Hidden Teeth - The legislation that would become the Protect America Act was carefully written by Bush officials, and would go much farther than giving the NSA the leeway it needed to wiretap US citizens. Instead, as Huq writes, “the Protect America Act is a dramatic, across-the-board expansion of government authority to collect information without judicial oversight.” Democrats believed they had negotiated a deal with the administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, to limit the law to addressing foreign surveillance wiretaps, but, Huq writes, “the White House torpedoed that deal and won a far broader law.” The law removes any real accountability over domestic surveillance by either Congress or the judiciary. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that the PAA provides “unlimited access to currently protected personal information that is already accessible through an oversight procedure.” The law is part of the administration’s continual attempts to “eviscerat[e]” the checks and balances that form the foundation of US democracy.
Ramifications - The law includes the provision that warrantless surveillance can be “directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside of the United States.” Huq writes that this is a tremendously broad and vague standard that allows “freewheeling surveillance of Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” He adds: “The problem lies in the words ‘directed at.’ Under this language, the NSA could decide to ‘direct’ its surveillance at Peshawar, Pakistan—and seize all US calls going to and from there.… Simply put, the law is an open-ended invitation to collect Americans’ international calls and e-mails.” The law does not impose any restrictions on the reason for surveillance. National security concerns are no longer the standard for implementing surveillance of communications. And the phrase “reasonably believe” is uncertain. The provisions for oversight are, Huq writes, “risibly weak.” Surveillance need only be explained by presentations by the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to FISC, which has little room to invalidate any surveillance, and furthermore will not be informed of any specific cases of surveillance. As for Congress, the Attorney General only need inform that body of “incidents of noncompliance” as reported by the administration. Congress must rely on the administration to police itself; it cannot demand particulars or examine documentation for itself. The law expires in six months, but, Huq notes, that deadline comes up in the middle of the 2008 presidential campaign, with all the pressures that entails. And the law allows “the NSA to continue wielding its new surveillance powers for up to a year afterward.” The law, Huq writes, “does not enhance security-related surveillance powers. Rather, it allows the government to spy when there is no security justification. And it abandons all but the pretense of oversight.” [Nation, 8/7/2007]
Hambali, circa 2008. [Source: US Defense Department]Fourteen “high value” detainees held by the US in Guantanamo Bay (see March 9-April 28, 2007) are ruled to be “enemy combatants.” The detainees include 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, 9/11 coordinator Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Jemaah Islamiyah leader Hambali, and al-Qaeda leaders Khallad bin Attash and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. However, a judge had previously ruled that designating a detainee an “enemy combatant” was meaningless and that a person designated an enemy combatant could not be tried under the Military Commissions Act (see June 4, 2007). The Washington Post comments, “It is unclear if these men can be tried at military commissions without a change in the law or a newly designed review.” [Washington Post, 8/10/2007]
Entity Tags: Mohamad Farik Amin, Khallad bin Attash, Mohammed Nazir Bin Lep, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Military Commissions Act, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Majid Khan, Abu Zubaida, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, Hambali, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Gouled Hassan Dourad
Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, Civil Liberties
The Justice Department’s Brian Benczkowski answers Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)‘s request for clarification of the terms “humane treatment” and “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” as it applies to suspected terrorists in US custody. Benczkowski writes that the government uses the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) and a recent executive order, Order #13440 (authorizing the continued use of harsh interrogation methods—see July 20, 2007) to determine how the US will comply with the Geneva Conventions. Benczkowski writes that Order 13440 and the Army Field Manual, among other guidelines, ensure that any interrogations carried out by US personnel comply with Geneva.
Geneva Does Not Clearly Define 'Humane Treatment' - He goes on to note that the term “humane treatment” is not directly defined by Geneva, but “rather provides content by enumerating the specific prohibitions that would contravene that standard.” Common Article 3, the statute in the Conventions that specifically addresses the treatment of prisoners, expressly prohibits “violence” including “murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” It also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity,” including “humiliating and degrading treatment.” Benczkowski writes that there is no accepted international standard as to what is defined as “humane treatment” and what is not, outside of the basic provisions of food, water, clothing, shelter, and protection from extremes of temperature. Given this standard, he writes, the Bush administration does ensure that “all detainees within the CIA program shall be treated humanely.”
Defined by Circumstances - He goes on to note that Geneva seems to grant some leeway for interpretation as to what complies with its standards, particularly in the area of “outrages upon personal dignity.” Citing a previous international tribunal, he writes, “To rise to the level of an outrage, the conduct must be ‘animated by contempt for the human dignity of another person’ and it must be so deplorable that the reasonable observer would recognize it as something that must be universally condemned.” None of the methods used by US interrogators contravenes any of these standards as the Justice Department interprets them, Benczkowski concludes. As for the question of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” or as he abbreviates it, “CIDT,” Benczkowski writes that such treatment is prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution. However, circumstances determine what is and is not CIDT, he writes; even “in evaluating whether a homicide violates Common Article 3, it would be necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the act.” The CIA interrogation program fully complies with Common Article 3, various statutes and Supreme Court decisions, and the Bill of Rights, Benczkowski asserts. [US Department of Justice, 9/27/2007 ]
Air Force Colonel Morris Davis resigns his position as the lead counsel for the military commissions trials at Guantanamo after complaining that his authority in prosecutions is being usurped for political purposes (see October 19, 2007). In particular, Davis complains about interference by Air Force Brigadier General Thomas Hartmann, a legal adviser at Guantanamo (see July 2007), and Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes (see October 4, 2007). [Washington Post, 10/20/2007] Davis planned on prosecuting as many as 80 of the Guantanamo detainees. There have been no trials so far, because the Supreme Court ruled the trials unconstitutional until they were reauthorized by the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006). Davis has made headlines with outspoken support of the trials and his colorful characterizations of Guantanamo detainees. In March 2006, he compared detainees who challenged the trial system to vampires afraid of the harsh sunlight of US justice: “Remember if you dragged Dracula out into the sunlight, he melted? Well, that’s kind of the way it is trying to drag a detainee into the courtroom,” he told reporters. “But their day is coming.” [Miami Herald, 10/6/2007]
The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that foreign terror suspects held without charge at Guantanamo Bay have the Constitutional right to challenge their detention in US civilian courts. The Court splits along ideological lines, with the more liberal and moderate members supporting the finding, and the more conservative members opposing it. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a centrist, writes the ruling. He writes, “The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” The ruling specifically strikes down the portion of the Military Commissions Act (see October 17, 2006) that denies detainees their habeas corpus rights to file petitions. [Associated Press, 6/12/2008; Associated Press, 6/12/2008] The case is Boumediene v. Bush, and was filed in the Supreme Court in March 2007 on behalf of Lakhdar Boumediene, a Bosnian citizen held in the Guantanamo camp since 2002 (see January 18, 2002). It was combined with a similar case, Al Odah v United States (see October 20, 2004). [Oyez (.org), 6/2007; Jurist, 6/29/2007]
'Stinging Rebuke' for Bush Administration - The ruling is considered a serious setback for the Bush administration (a “stinging rebuke,” in the words of the Associated Press), which insists that terror suspects detained at Guantanamo and elsewhere have no rights in the US judicial system. It is unclear whether the ruling will lead to prompt hearings for detainees [Associated Press, 6/12/2008; Associated Press, 6/12/2008] ; law professor James Cohen, who represents two detainees, says, “Nothing is going to happen between June 12 and January 20,” when the next president takes office. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr says the decision will not affact war crimes trials already in the works: “Military commission trials will therefore continue to go forward.”
Scalia: Ruling Will 'Cause More Americans to Be Killed' - President Bush says he disagrees with the ruling, and says he may seek new legislation to keep detainees under lock and key. Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the Court’s ideological right wing, agrees; in a “blistering” dissent, he writes that the decision “will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.” In his own dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts argues that the ruling strikes down “the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants.” Joining Scalia and Roberts in the minority are Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Voting in the majority are Kennedy and Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens.
Military Tribunals 'Doomed,' Says Navy Lawyer - Former Navy lawyer Charles Swift, who argued a similar case before the Supreme Court in Hamdan v Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006), says he believes the ruling removes any legal basis for keeping Guantanamo open, and says that military tribunals are “doomed.” The entire rationale for Guantanamo and the tribunals, Swift says, is the idea that “constitutional protections wouldn’t apply.” But now, “The court said the Constitution applies. They’re in big trouble.” Democrats and many human rights organizations hail the ruling as affirming the US’s commitment to the rule of law; some Republican lawmakers say the ruling puts foreign terrorists’ rights over the safety of the American people. Vincent Warren, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says: “The Supreme Court has finally brought an end to one of our nation’s most egregious injustices. By granting the writ of habeas corpus, the Supreme Court recognizes a rule of law established hundreds of years ago and essential to American jurisprudence since our nation’s founding.” [Associated Press, 6/12/2008]
Entity Tags: Stephen Breyer, Vincent Warren, US Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, Military Commissions Act, Peter Carr, Bush administration (43), Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Charles Swift, Clarence Thomas, David Souter, George W. Bush, Lakhdar Boumediene, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, James Cohen, John G. Roberts, Jr, US Department of Justice
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.