In a significant rebuff to President Bush and his security-driven strategy for Republican victory in November, the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday rejected the President’s military detainee bill and passed a radically different alternative. At stake in this standoff between the President and the Senate are legal and moral issues central to the Constitution and the character of the American people: the right to a fair trial, the use of torture, the accountability of high government officials for war crimes. It also tests the powers of Congress and the Supreme Court to rein in an errant executive.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, the Bush Administration seeks to position Republicans as tough in pursuing the “war on terror,” and to present Democrats as soft. By revealing recently that the government had been holding captives in secret jails and aims to try them at Guantánamo Bay, Bush and his advisers signaled that they are clearly hoping for an upswell of public support for Republicans who are “tough on terror.”
But it was Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, not Democrats, who led the battle this week against the President’s proposal: John Warner, Lindsey Graham and John McCain were joined in the 15-to-9 committee vote by Susan Collins of Maine.
The President’s proposal seeks to roll back two important decisions rendered by the Supreme Court on the legal rights and treatment of terror suspects: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush. It would establish tribunals at Guantánamo that would deny the most basic legal protections required by the Geneva Conventions, allow the use of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained by coercion, and allow defendants to be convicted on the basis of evidence they had never seen.
It also guts much of the War Crimes Act, which makes it a federal crime for an American to commit “grave violations” of the Geneva Conventions. While the Administration claims it is concerned about protecting CIA interrogators, its bill would also protect mercenaries and top government officials from prosecution. And it would apply retroactively to September 11, 2001.
The Senate Armed Services Committee bill, in contrast, aims to establish Guantánamo tribunals in accordance with the standards set out in the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision. And it would leave much more of the War Crimes Act intact. Nonetheless, the Warner bill has some significant flaws.
According to an analysis by Georgetown Law School professor and former Clinton official Marty Lederman, posted on his Balkinization blog, the Warner bill would reverse the Supreme Court’s Rasul v. Bush decision by eliminating the power of the federal courts to hear the habeas corpus claims of any noncitizen detained overseas or any individual who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant “other than in very circumscribed appeals from decisions of the Civilian Status Review Commissions or military tribunals.”