Saturday, July 09, 2005

Who We Are

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Who We Are

Lead Editorial
NY Times
June 18, 2005

For more than three and a half years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress has been derelict in its duty to assert control over the prison camps created by President Bush in the shadows beyond the Constitution, the rule of law and a half-century of international laws and treaties. So it was a relief to watch the hearing this week by Senator Arlen Specter's Judiciary Committee on the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and to hear Mr. Specter declare that it was time for Congress to do its job and bring the American chain of prison camps under the law.

While the hearing was too long in coming, its timing was useful - one day after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who should have been fired for bungling the Iraq war and for the prison abuse scandal, offered the bizarre declaration that "no detention facility in the history of warfare has been more transparent" than Guantánamo.

Mr. Rumsfeld seems to be confusing transparency with invisibility.

At the hearing, four military and civilian officials overseeing the processing of prisoners at Guantánamo could not, or would not, provide the most basic information - such as how many detainees there are and what countries they came from. Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, a military lawyer, later courageously testified that he was assigned to represent one of the prisoners at Guantánamo, for the sole purpose of extracting a guilty plea. He provided a written order that contradicted the denials of the man who made the assignment, Brig. Gen. Thomas Hemingway, who oversees the military tribunals Mr. Bush created after 9/11 to screen selected prisoners away from public and judicial scrutiny.

William Barr, who was attorney general for President George H. W. Bush, arrogantly dismissed the entire debate as a waste of time. "Rarely have I seen a controversy that has less substance behind it," said Mr. Barr, who was sent by the administration to dilute a panel of critics of the prison policy.

But the hearing only confirmed the urgency of subjecting the post-9/11 detention system to the rule of law - starting with the president's legally dubious invention of "unlawful enemy combatant." J. Michael Wiggins, a deputy associate attorney general, said the administration believed it could hold anyone given that label "in perpetuity" without even filing charges. Excuse us, Mr. Barr, but that sounds like something of great substance, especially given how bad the administration is at telling actual villains from taxi drivers who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The administration should, as a first step, shut down the Guantánamo prison. Beyond that, Mr. Specter was exactly right when he said Congress must establish legal definitions of detainees from antiterrorist operations, enact rules for their internment and determine their rights under the Geneva Conventions and American law, including what sorts of evidence can be used against them. Those steps would help fix a system in which prisoners have been declared enemy combatants on the basis of confessions extracted under torture by countries working in behalf of American intelligence.

The Bush administration says 9/11 changed the rules and required the invention of new kinds of jails and legal procedures. Even if we accept that flawed premise, it is up to Congress to make new rules in a way that upholds American standards. The current setup - in which politically appointed ideologues make the rules behind closed doors - has done immense harm to the nation's image and increased the risk to every American in uniform.*

A trial "says as much about the society that holds the trial as it does about the individual before it," Commander Swift reminded the Senate. "Our trials in the United States reflect who we are."

The detention camps should meet no less of a standard.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company


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