The regulations proposed to implement George W. Bush’s order establishing military commissions for the trial of “international terrorists” are mere window dressing and will not cure the fatal defects of the order. They provide the accused with so little protection as to raise a suspicion that they are made primarily to disarm the critics.
The fundamental problem is that the proposed system, including all its “judicial” elements, still lies entirely within the military chain of command and subordinate to the President, who is the ultimate authority over every aspect of the proceedings. But independent impartial judges who are not beholden to any side are the indispensable bedrock of any credible system of justice. They must be the ones to make the basic decisions or at least to review them. Without such a tribunal to monitor them, the various “protections” provided by the proposed regulations–the presumption of innocence, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even outside counsel–mean little or nothing.
This is not a novel insight. Congress and the military have recognized how indispensable an independent judiciary is to a meaningful system of justice: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, verdicts are not final until they have been reviewed by a civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The provision of an appeal mechanism, especially in cases as politically and internationally sensitive as these, thus adds nothing to the fairness of the process–it merely insures that the final decision will be made by higher-ranking military officers who are still subject to military and presidential control.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, aware of these shortcomings, has sought to reassure doubters by noting that habeas corpus review will be available. But the order itself, which the regulations are only supposed to implement, expressly prohibits recourse to any court, as he well knows. For this reason, he was careful to describe the review as just a check on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, that is, whether the commission has the legal authority to try the particular accused. But review of a tribunal’s jurisdiction does not touch on any substantive or procedural aspect of a proceeding, such as apprehension, detention, pretrial procedure, trial, evidentiary rulings, verdict or the sentence.
Moreover, as noted, the order specifically mandates that the ultimate authority is the President. Since the initial decision to apprehend someone is also the President’s, and since everyone in the decision-making process, including the prosecutor, is subordinate to the President as the Commander in Chief, the police, prosecutor, some defense counsel, judge and jury are all rolled into one entity subject to one man–the antithesis of a just system. And given the rigidity of the military hierarchy and the natural desire of military personnel for promotion, who would challenge a judgment of their Commander in Chief that there is reason to believe someone is guilty of international terrorism and must be taken into custody–even if, as in so many instances, the action is as much for political reasons as for national security?
Compounding the difficulty is the absence of any real limit on what evidence may be admitted. The tribunal still may admit single, double and triple hearsay, affidavits, opinion and other dubious evidence. None of this can be effectively tested by cross-examination, especially since some of this evidence can be kept secret from the accused and his lawyers.
The decision to open up the proceedings to public view looks good, but it is only conditional–they may be closed if evidence that the tribunal considers worthy of secrecy is to be admitted. We have learned to our dismay how quick government officials are to classify information, even when it is already in the public domain. This Administration is particularly secretive, as shown by Bush’s order holding back presidential papers from public release, as well as the refusal to reveal any information about the 1,000-plus detainees held since September 11. Moreover, the usual reason for secrecy is that disclosure will reveal methods and sources. But reliance on sources often involves very subjective judgments based on inaccurate or untrustworthy information. Yet it is just this kind of evidence that is most likely to be kept secret.
These are not tribunals worthy of a nation governed by law. And we don’t need them. In the past eight years we have convicted twenty-six terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other cases in ordinary criminal trials and without revealing any secrets. The Administration realizes this, for it has decided to try the alleged “twentieth hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, in the criminal justice system.
The problem with these proposals is not that some people will never be satisfied–it is that the demands of justice have not been satisfied.