Detainee rights might expand

Proposal may close Guantanamo, move captives to U.S., officials say

November 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Bush administration officials are considering granting Guantanamo detainees substantially greater rights as part of an effort to close the detention center and possibly move much of its population to the United States, according to officials involved in the discussions.

One proposal being widely discussed in the administration would overhaul the procedure for determining whether detainees are properly held by granting them legal representation at detention hearings and by giving federal judges, not military officers, the power to decide whether suspects should be held.

Some officials now say that moving the detainees to U.S. soil would require giving them enhanced protections.

The White House has insisted for more than five years that a key legal pillar of the war on terrorism is that the military alone has the power to decide which foreign terrorism suspects should be held and for how long, and backing away from that would be a sharp change of course.

Yet some officials say that enhancing detainees' rights could help the administration strategically by undercutting a case brought by suspects at Guantanamo that is now before the Supreme Court, which could wind up winning them even more power to challenge their detention.

Under current Guantanamo rules, military officers decide whether detainees are properly held as enemy combatants, and the suspects are not permitted lawyers in the detention hearings.

Officials from President Bush on down have said they would like to close Guantanamo. In interviews, officials said the discussion of detainee rights was not an acknowledgment that past policies were flawed but rather a sign that the administration was engaged in trying to assess the legal and practical consequences of shutting the detention center and moving detainees to the United States.

Before any detainees can be moved, officials have said, they would need to find or build a secure site in the U.S. and would need legislation allowing detainees deemed to be a threat to be held. Under current proposals, scores of detainees might continue to be held indefinitely without facing criminal charges.

"These are dangerous men," said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs. "There has to be an appropriate way of handling that."

The administration has fought for years in court and in Congress against granting the detainees more rights. In the latest instance, the Supreme Court is to consider a case brought by Guantanamo detainees who are seeking to challenge their confinement in federal court.

If the administration loses that case, it could give the detainees even more legal rights and create a precedent limiting the president's and the military's power. Lawyers inside and outside of government said a detailed proposal from the administration to give detainees fuller legal protections could convince the justices that they need not resolve the case, Boumediene v. Bush.

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