By William Fisher
The Congress that was so fearful that trying accused terrorists in civilian courts would hasten Armageddon is now proposing to go one mindless step further. It may soon vote to make indefinite detention and unfair military trials permanent.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted to increase the military’s role in the detention of those suspected of being members of Al Qaeda or its allies – even if the arrests are made in the U.S.
The Senate defeated, 61-37, an effort to strip a major military bill -- National Defense Authorization Act -- of a clutch of controversial provisions – for example, one requiring the government to place into military custody any suspected member of Al Qaeda or one of its allies connected to a plot against the United States or its allies. And a related provision that would create a federal statute saying the government has the legal authority to keep people suspected of terrorism in military custody, indefinitely and without trial. It contains no exception for American citizens.
“These provisions stretch the law of war beyond all recognition, and threaten to dramatically undermine national security by taking civilian tools of justice off the table when dealing with suspected terrorists,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Intelligence and military leaders have overwhelmingly condemned these provisions — they will make us less safe, imposing a blunt one-size-fits-all approach in an area where the executive branch most requires flexibility to do its job.”
In an editorial, the Washington Post noted that Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) praised the provisions as “an improvement over the originals, which were decried by the Obama administration and even former George W. Bush Defense Department officials as too heavyhanded.”
But the Post said, “The new proposals are as problematic as the old and should be scrapped.”
It continued: “Since President Obama took office, some lawmakers, including Democrats, have tried to force him to adopt their military-centric approach to fighting terrorism. The original Senate plan permanently banned use of defense funds to build or modify U.S. facilities to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees; ordered
military detention for terrorism suspects, including U.S. citizens, captured on
U.S. soil; and made it very difficult to transfer detainees deemed fit for
release to their homes or third countries. This approach, we have argued,
unacceptably limited the president’s flexibility to thwart attacks and react to
Amnesty International (AI), in a statement, said, “We are facing one of the biggest crises at Guantanamo since “war on terror” detainees were first transferred there nearly 10 years ago: Congress may soon vote to make indefinite detention and unfair trials permanent. The 89 people there who are approved for release could remain forever. The 46 slated for detention without charge could be denied due process forever. The 36 referred for prosecution could only be tried in unfair kangaroo courts Military Commissions). Guantanamo would be permanent.”
The group urged its members to let their lawmakers know they ”oppose any legislation that would further entrench indefinite detention, denial of due process and military commissions—at Guantanamo, Bagram or any other US facilities—in US law and practice.”
The organization added, “Indefinite detention, denial of due process and the unfair military commissions are violations of human rights and contravene international law. There is a better way to ensure justice and security for all of us: either charge and fairly try Guantanamo detainees in US federal court, or release them immediately to countries where their human rights will be respected. The United States government should be protecting human rights, not violating them.”
When Barack Obama took office, he pledged on his very first day in the White House that he would close Guantanamo. Part of his plan was to try prisoners before our regular Article 111 civilian courts, where hundreds of accused terrorists had already been tried over a number of years.
But Congress had collective apoplexy. It hastily passed a law denying the president funds to move prisoners from Guantanamo to Federal Court in lower Manhattan. Lawmakers, including some of Congress’ leading so-called liberals, raved and ranted themselves into a frenzy. They went all-out stoking the flames of fear. A terror trial in lower Manhattan would provide terrorists with a readymade target to attack. Traffic would be tied up for days. Business would suffer. And if the defendant, heaven forefend, was acquitted, he would be “walking up and down Main Street and having coffee in the local diner.”
What? Not running for the School Board?
The first prospective trial was to have been KSM (Khalid Sheik Mohammed), the alleged mastermind of 9/11. But that never happened. And now it’s never going to happen. It’s unlikely that KSM will ever appear before a Military Commission. So he will be at GITMO until he dies. As a consequence, 45 other people will have been denied due process to petition for their release. And 89 prisoners scheduled to be released, won’t be.
And the world will continue to wonder how and why this happened in the country the world used to look to as safe harbor for civil liberties and human rights.