Tribunal `absolute right thing'

Bush defends order for secret military trial of terrorists

November 20, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush defended his decision to allow secret military trials for suspected foreign terrorists, saying yesterday that it was the "absolute right thing to do" to ensure swift justice and protect national security.

The administration's plan has come under sharp scrutiny since it was announced last week.

Critics said it could endanger basic civil liberties and send the wrong message to other nations.

Bush dismissed that criticism in his first extensive public remarks about the proposal. He said that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

"We're fighting a war ... against the most evil kinds of people, and I need to have that extraordinary option at my fingertips," he told reporters at the White House.

"I ought to be able to have that option available, should we ever bring one of these al-Qaida members in alive."

Military tribunals, dormant since the early part of World War II, would allow the government to circumvent the normal criminal justice system.

The president would decide who would be tried by the courts. The proceedings could be secret, the standard of proof lower than in civilian courts, and the right to appeal eliminated - even if a death sentence was imposed.

By allowing for the use of such military courts, which could operate outside the United States, the administration sought to assure the American public that foreign terrorists captured during the military operation in Afghanistan would be quickly brought to justice.

Constitutional concerns

But the proposal has stirred deep concerns across the political spectrum.

Critics say they fear the secret courts would violate basic constitutional protections and could further alienate Muslim countries that have questioned the U.S. allegations that Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network were behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has said the tribunals would send the world the message "that what we have in mind is victor's justice."

"We want the coalition the president has forged to remain at our side for the long term, not just for the moment," Leahy said last week.

"We do not want to make it less likely that other countries will cooperate with us, perhaps even jeopardizing their willingness to turn over suspected terrorists."

Along with Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Leahy has asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to answer questions from the Judiciary committee on the tribunal proposal and other aggressive investigative measures adopted by the administration over the past two months.

Last used in World War II

The White House and leading conservatives have said the secret, military tribunals are needed to protect jurors and court personnel as well as confidential sources, intelligence information and methods.

The last president to use such a tribunal was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created a secret military court in 1942 to try eight German agents who came to the United States with the plans and means to destroy factories, bridges, canals and other landmarks.

Six of the eight were convicted and ordered executed within seven weeks of their capture; two others were given lengthy prison sentences and eventually allowed to return to Germany.

Bush invoked Roosevelt's actions in defending his own plans. In issuing his executive order last week, Bush promised that defendants would receive a "full and fair" trial and could be represented by attorneys.

"This government will do everything we can to defend the American people, within the confines of our Constitution," Bush said.

"That's exactly how we're proceeding. And to the critics, I say: I made the absolute right decision."

Domestic trial impractical

Foreign terrorists have been brought to the United States and tried in public proceedings in recent years, but the White House has said that would be impractical for a suspect as notorious as bin Laden.

Bush said yesterday that U.S. troops were drawing closer to bin Laden and other key al-Qaida operatives.

Without offering details, he said the "noose is beginning to narrow, the net is getting tighter."

"The sooner al-Qaida is brought to justice, the sooner Afghanistan will return to normal," Bush said. "People understand that."

Jerome M. Marcus, a Philadelphia attorney and former federal prosecutor who supports the use of tribunals, said in an interview last week that he hoped the presidential directive allowing the military courts to exist meant that they were needed.

"Frankly, my secret hope when the administration issued this thing is they issued it because they needed to use it - that they've got some of these guys," Marcus said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.