After four years of silence, the Senate on Tuesday voted 84-14 to limit federal court jurisdiction over cases filed by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). We still have time, however, to try to steer Congress toward the smarter option, which is to increase federal courts’ ability to review these cases, and to strengthen the legal process used at GTMO tribunals.
The proposal results from a compromise over a defense bill amendment that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proposed last week, and which the Senate approved Monday. That amendment would have nullified the US Supreme Court’s decision in Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004), which held that non-US citizen prisoners at GTMO may file habeas corpus petitions challenging their imprisonment as well as claims under federal law concerning the conditions of their confinement; Graham’s amendment would have stripped foreign “enemy combatants” of any right to federal court review of their convictions by military commissions, and would have allowed only limited federal appellate review of GTMO tribunal determinations that prisoners are “enemy combatants” who may be imprisoned indefinitely. The compromise amendment passed Tuesday, brokered Monday night by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and backed by Graham, permits some, albeit limited, federal appellate review over GTMO tribunals and military commissions. (There is no mention of prisoners held at CIA secret prisons in former Iron Curtain countries.) But the court review is too limited to provide any real benefits.
What 84 Senators apparently don’t understand is that using rigorous legal process at GTMO to determine whether a prisoner is an “enemy combatant,” or whether he is guilty of particular crimes, is an important weapon in the “war on terror.” When our military and intelligence know that only solid evidence — instead of hearsay, coerced confessions, and evidence kept secret from the accused — can be used to support detentions, and that a federal judge will review the proceedings, they will investigate more thoroughly. We will be far more certain that we’re holding the right people, instead of, for example, mere dupes that the real terrorists have handed over, or innocent people captured by mistake. Imprisoning innocent people can spur others to violence against us. Shoddy investigations and kangaroo courts merely endanger the public.
On the other hand, requiring our officials to roll up their sleeves and ferret out reliable evidence would protect the public, by sharpening our investigators’ skills and building knowledge about terrorists and their networks. In the long run, such seasoned and nuanced intelligence will protect us far more than convictions based on beatings and hearsay. Rigorous process also provides a check on Executive power. Without it, we can’t know if our leaders are telling us the truth when they say they’re making progress and capturing dangerous terrorists our leaders can’t even be certain themselves.
So the Senate made a grave mistake Tuesday. It did not strengthen GTMO procedures. It voted to limit the availability of court review of detentions that could have developed under Rasul v. Bush. The proposal limits court review to the D.C. Circuit (which limits fact-finding). All that can be appealed as of right is the Combatant Status Review Tribunal’s rulings on whether a prisoner is an “enemy combatant,” and a military commission’s conviction of an enemy combatant for particular crime where the accused was sentenced to death, or for more than 10 years. Constitutional challenges to the processes are also permitted, but how sweeping they may be is unclear.
Five major problems are apparent. First, the limited judicial review won’t prevent the government from holding prisoners indefinitely; if “enemy combatant” status determinations for new prisoners are delayed indefinitely, there is nothing to review. There is no right to a speedy trial at GTMO; even if there were, the Senate’s proposal would not let a prisoner, languishing in his cage, pursue that right.
Second, there is no right to review of military commission sentences that are less than 10 years; any review of these cases is at the D.C. Circuit’s discretion. Military commissions might regularly mete out sentences of just under ten years, to avoid review. In this way the Administration could protect convictions based on weak or unreliable evidence, or fraught with procedural error. The more the Administration can stack the D.C. Circuit with “Executive-friendly” judges, the less likely there will be any discretionary reviews.
Third, the Senate proposal won’t fix the problems of capturing and holding the wrong people (increasing the risk that real terrorists will slip away, and that the injustice will increase their ranks). A review limited to “Constitutional” problems will not reach evidentiary and procedural flaws that do not rise to that level but nonetheless cast doubt on the accuracy of a tribunal’s verdict.
Fourth, the Senate’s proposal will not fix the problem that, when convictions are easy, our investigators can shirk their duty to develop and sharpen their investigative skills. The proposal, in fact, exacerbates this problem.
Fifth, the proposal is also misguided in its effort to promote “GTMO tort reform”: it bars prisoners’ claims addressing their living conditions or treatment. (One Senator called such cases “lawsuit abuse.”) The result? There will be no real deterrence against torture and other mistreatment. The roundly applauded and overwhelmingly approved proposal by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) to prohibit inhumane treatment of any person detained by the US will be reduced to an empty, feel-good gesture. It can’t be enforced outside the courts.
Limiting such “lawsuit abuse” might make Senators feel good, but it endangers the public. Information including baseless allegations of torture and cruelty will slip through the bars of the GTMO cages, and travel to distant lands. Lacking a court as a forum, there will be no way for US officials to show that they aren’t torturing captives. Our leaders’ objections, promises and assurances to the world will fall flat. Resentment and anger against our country will rise.
Perhaps most of all, the Senate’s (and, for that matter, the Supreme Court’s) distinction between US citizens and non-US citizens in the “war on terror” will ultimately collapse — to the detriment of US citizens. Why? Because it’s an irrational distinction, based on the mere sentimentality of nationalism. At some point, our leaders might decide that, if it’s “necessary” in this “war” to deny the right to full judicial process and review for non-US citizens, it will be doubly necessary to deny these rights to US citizens suspected of terrorism. That’s because American “enemy combatants” are much more dangerous than non-US citizens. Holding US passports, they can enter our country freely. They can blend in better than foreigners, and plot and plan undetected. If there is, as 84 Senators seem to believe, a relationship between the level of danger a person poses and the amount of judicial process we should give him, then common sense says that US citizens who are “enemy combatants” should get the least process of all. That’s where the Senate’s (and the Administration’s) illogic is leading us, and it won’t make us any safer.
We must recognize that using weak process, and preventing full and impartial review of GTMO tribunal decisions, is a wrongheaded plan that benefits no one but the politicians who are (all of a sudden) pushing it on us. Vigorous process is a powerful weapon for fighting elusive terrorists and their shadowy networks. When it comes to protecting the public against terrorism, the Executive should not be left to its own flawed and dangerous devices.
One of the most important pieces of legislation concerning our national security is now on its way to the House of Representatives. Its members must step up and correct the Senate’s mistake.