Code would accept forced confessions

Senators briefed on plan for terrorism detainees

August 03, 2006|By PETER SPIEGEL AND RICHARD B. SCHMITT | PETER SPIEGEL AND RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A new administration plan for prosecuting accused terrorists held by the U.S. military would grant detainees some additional legal rights but still permit the use of coerced confessions and prevent the accused from seeing classified evidence being used against them.

Providing the most detailed White House response to a Supreme Court ruling that struck down President Bush's military commission system, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday that a new "Code of Military Commissions" would adhere more closely to the laws for military court-martial proceedings - a significant concession to congressional critics.

But Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the most vocal Republican critics of the administration's treatment of Guantanamo detainees, said the proposal raised questions.

It was unclear whether the administration would be forced to bow to Graham and McCain on the rules or would risk another confrontation with Senate Republicans on the issue of detainee treatment.

Last year, the White House had to back down from its objections to a law pushed by McCain that bars torture in interrogation of terror suspects.

Although the two lawmakers remained adamant in their stands at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, both praised the administration for repeatedly consulting Congress, a sign they might be willing to eventually agree to a compromise.

Gonzales said the proposed new rules, which remain under discussion within the administration, would likely still allow a military judge to rule on whether evidence gathered through coercion or inhumane treatment of a detainee should be allowed in a trial, rather than banning it outright.

A visibly disturbed McCain objected to the provision: "On this issue of inhumane treatment, I think we're going to have to have an extended discussion."

The admonition followed an exchange in which Gonzales paused for more than 15 seconds when McCain asked him whether statements gathered "through illegal, inhumane treatment" should be admissible in the military commissions.

"I can foresee a situation where, depending on the definition, I would say no," Gonzales answered after the long pause. "But depending on your definition of something as degrading, such as insults or something like that, I would say that information should still come in."

McCain appeared angered by the answer, telling Gonzales, "I think that if you practice illegal, inhumane treatment and allow that to be admissible in court, that would be a radical departure from any practice that this nation" has used before.

Earlier in the day, during a separate hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the military's top lawyers expressed concerns similar to McCain's over the use of coercive confessions.

"I don't believe that a statement that is obtained under torture, certainly, and under coercive measures should be admissible," said the Army's judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Scott Black. Lawyers for the Navy, Air Force and Marines Corp said they concurred.

But a Justice Department official, Steven Bradbury, told the same hearing that while the administration opposed the use of evidence obtained through torture, the question of the admissibility of coerced statements was "more difficult."

"Allegations can be made about coercion, and courts have always had a very difficult time in defining what that is," said Bradbury, the head of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel.

He said allowing a military judge to rule on the evidence's admissibility would provide a "gatekeeper" who could decide whether the allegations had credibility. Some military lawyers later indicated they might be open to such a procedure.

The administration was forced to rework the rules for the military trials when the Supreme Court ruled in June that trials by military commissions imposed by President Bush violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.

Peter Spiegel and Richard B. Schmitt write for the Los Angeles Times.

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