WaPo : Justice at Guantanamo

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Justice at Guantanamo

Congress has another chance to repair the rules for handling detainees in the war on terrorism.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007; Page A18

THE SENSE of deja vu is overwhelming. Once again, lawmakers are promising to introduce legislation allowing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to challenge their detentions. Once again, congressional Republicans are vowing to defeat it, as they have before. The deja vu should stop here.

By denying hundreds of detainees the most basic of legal rights, that of challenging their detention, the Bush administration has continued to damage the country's image and moral authority abroad. No government should be allowed to hold people indefinitely without affording them a chance to challenge that detention. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking minority member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and others planned to introduce the Habeas Corpus Restoration Act of 2007 this week to recognize such due-process rights for detainees. The Senate debate over the Iraq war may force a postponement, but it should be a short one. The measure would modify a law passed by the GOP-controlled Congress on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections curtailing legal challenges to detention and would hold that the long-established principle of habeas corpus applies to detainees at Guantanamo. This would allow them access to federal courts to appeal their indefinite detention without charge as "enemy combatants." Such suits, filed before the 2006 law went into effect, had forced the administration to make substantial -- if insufficient -- improvements in procedures for holding, interrogating and trying detainees.

Lawmakers should resist the temptation to punt the matter to the Supreme Court for a decision. The court late last month agreed to hear a challenge to the administration's detainee policy; if lawmakers adopt the Leahy-Specter provision, the Supreme Court case is likely to become moot. Neither side in this debate can be certain how the court will rule, and too many detainees have already been held for too long with too little process for Congress to sit idly by.

The reforms should not stop there. The administration should begin the process of shutting down the Guantanamo prison, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have urged. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last week introduced such legislation, although we believe it would be better for the president to take the initiative. In exchange for recognizing detainees' habeas rights and winding down Guantanamo detentions, the president should ask for Congress's authorization to hold a small number of foreign-born detainees as enemy combatants in the United States and to try a limited number of detainees, such as top al-Qaeda leaders, in special courts that depart in carefully limited ways from conventional criminal or military rules.