Senate moves fast on tribunals issue

Justices' limiting of Bush's powers spurs action

July 01, 2006|By JILL ZUCKMAN | JILL ZUCKMAN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Congress is moving quickly to begin writing legislation to allow the creation of military tribunals, reacting to a Supreme Court decision this week that repudiated the Bush administration's use of such tribunals to try Guantanamo detainees without authorization from Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said he would introduce legislation on the tribunals after the July Fourth recess, which extends through next week. Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he wants to work with the White House on crafting a bill.

And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a bill Thursday night, hours after the court's decision, that he said would balance the need for national security with the need for due process.

500 detainees

Not all lawmakers are sure that Congress should write new legislation. Some think civilian courts or courts-martial convened according to military law are sufficient to resolve the cases regarding the nearly 500 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

"We should stay as close as possible to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader and a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Durbin said it is not clear whether the military tribunals that the administration created would be able to continue.

"That is going to be the challenge, whether we can create a separate tribunal and meet the guidelines the Supreme Court set," he said.

Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who leads the Armed Services Committee, plans to hold hearings beginning the week of July 10 to examine what needs to be done and whether legislation is required, said John Ullyot, the committee's spokesman. The committee will hear from lawyers from every branch of the military service, then determine the best way to proceed, he said.

Specter said the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing July 11. His legislation would authorize the use of a military commission, or tribunal, for those charged with specific offenses.

House leaders were less vocal about their plans, and it is not clear whether they will proceed as quickly as the Senate intends to. The House Republican leadership might be waiting to consult with the White House.

Shortly after the court decision, President Bush said he was looking forward to working with Congress to craft legislation authorizing the tribunals. With congressional elections four months away, it is not clear how such a course would play out politically.

Democrats could try to use congressional hearings and any debate on tribunals to air their criticisms of the tribunals, of Bush's assertion of presidential powers and of the administration's fight against terrorism in general. The White House and GOP leaders could portray Democrats as soft on terrorism, a political tactic that has proved effective in the past.

The congressional debate is likely to include a politically fraught argument on what procedures the tribunals should use and what rights should be accorded the defendants, whom the administration suspects of being terrorists.

In Thursday's Supreme Court ruling, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that Congress could legalize the administration's military tribunal system. The court also kept open the option of using the U.S. court system or the military justice system.

Frist said in a statement that he prefers military tribunals.

"To keep America safe in the war on terror, I believe we should try terrorists only before military commissions, not in our civilian courts," he said.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the ruling would help Congress "get this system unstuck."

"I'm confident that we can come up with a framework that guarantees we comply with the court's order but at the same time none of the bad people are set free," McCain said yesterday on NBC's Today show.

Many never charged

The U.S. military began sending people suspected of links to al-Qaida or the Taliban to Guantanamo four years ago. Many of the prisoners there have never been charged with crimes, and the court's ruling does not clarify their situation.

Some members of Congress said their repeated offers to work with the White House have been rebuffed.

"I introduced a bill more than four years ago that would have ensured the constitutionality of military tribunals and protected any convictions they might yield, while at the same time showing the world that we will fight terrorists without sacrificing our values," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

"My bill offered the president a bipartisan model of how to avoid this mess," Leahy said. "He refused to work with me or the Congress but insisted on going it alone."

Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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