By LAWRENCE M. O'ROURKE
June 16, 2005
Military officers told the Senate Judiciary Committee that about 520 detainees, most of them suspected terrorists, were in line as enemy combatants to eventually receive trials before military tribunals, but that the trials had been suspended while federal courts decide if the suspects are entitled to the rights of ordinary criminal defendants.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman who arranged the hearing, said that Congress rather than the courts and the Bush administration should define the legal rights of the suspects to replace the current "crazy quilt" pattern of laws and procedures.
"It may be that it's too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do," Specter said. "But at any rate, Congress hasn't acted."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and several other Democratic senators said that the detention of suspects at the Guantanamo facility has hurt the image of the United States in the battle to win political support from Muslims in the war against terror.
In locking away terrorism suspects at "Gitmo," the Bush administration caused "an international embarrassment to our nation, and made a mockery of the American system of justice," Leahy said.
"Until now, the Republican-led Congress has been content to go along for the ride," Leahy said. "As the administration dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole, we stood idly by."
Specter, who has clashed with other Republicans in his first year as Judiciary Committee chairman, said he was determined to keep the spotlight on allegations of abuse of detainees.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who has been critical of Specter, ridiculed the idea that suspected terrorists should have the same rights as U.S. citizens charged with crime.
"I'm concerned about the tone of this hearing," Sessions said, declaring that it could increase the risks for U.S. combat troops.
The hearing opened with testimony from the two military officers with authority over detention and military tribunals, Army Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway and Navy Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah.
"Military commissions are the appropriate forum to preserve safety, protect national security, and provide the full and fair trails consistent with our standards and those of the international community," Hemingway testified.
He said that the military had the authority to detain suspected terrorists without trial until the war on terror is over.
The indefinite detention of suspected terrorists "serves the vital military objectives of preventing captured combatants from rejoining the conflict and gathering intelligence to further the overall war effort, and to prevent additional attacks against our country," Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Wiggins told the senators.
Hemingway said that the Pentagon has a procedure to review charges against suspected terrorists.
McGarrah noted that the tribunals have released 23 detainees and are looking for a way to release 15 others who were seized more than three years ago as suspected terrorists but later dropped as enemy combatants.
"Because of the highly unusual nature of the global war on terror, and because we do not want to detain any person longer than necessary, we've taken this unprecedented and historic action to establish this process to permit enemy combatants to be heard while conflict is ongoing," McGarrah said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that the entire program of holding and interrogating detainees violates U.S. standards of justice and damages the U.S. image around the world.
"There are literally millions of young men throughout the Muslim world who are deciding as we speak whether to take up arms against us, or work toward peaceful resolution of complex issues," Feinstein said.
Current U.S. policy toward suspected terrorists, Feinstein said, "may not be helping us win the war on terrorism."
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, a military lawyer appointed to defend Salim Hamdan, a suspected terrorist from Yemin, testified that he was hamstrung in meeting his legal duties by a warning from his superior that Hamdan would lose access to counsel unless he pleaded guilty to a war crime.
Swift said that Hamdan had been kept in solitary confinement in a dark cell for several months with only the Quran to read. Swift told senators that his request for a speedy trial and medical examination of Hamdan were rejected by a military commander.
Swift has taken the case into the federal courts.
"We believe that the Supreme Court will ultimately find these military tribunals unlawful," Swift said.
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