||Bush Can Hold U.S. Citizens Without Trial
June 28, 2004
Schizophrenic police state doublespeak -- how can you protest a secret arrest in court when you are being secretly held without a trial?
By ANNE GEARAN/AP/June 28, 2004
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled narrowly Monday that Congress gave President Bush the power to hold an American citizen without charges or trial, but said the detainee can challenge his treatment in court.
The 6-3 ruling sided with the administration on an important legal point raised in the war on terrorism. At the same time, it left unanswered other hard questions raised by the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, who has been detained more than two years and who was only recently allowed to see a lawyer.
The administration had fought any suggestion that Hamdi or another U.S.-born terrorism suspect could go to court, saying that such a legal fight posed a threat to the president's power to wage war as he sees fit.
``We have no reason to doubt that courts, faced with these sensitive matters, will pay proper heed both to the matters of national security that might arise in an individual case and to the constitutional limitations safeguarding essential liberties that remain vibrant even in times of security concerns,'' Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court.
O'Connor said that Hamdi ``unquestionably has the right to access to counsel.''
The court threw out a lower court ruling that supported the government's position fully, and Hamdi's case now returns to a lower court.
The careful opinion seemed deferential to the White House, but did not give the president everything he wanted.
The ruling is the largest test so far of executive power in the post-Sept. 11 assault on terrorism.
The court has yet to rule in the similar case of American-born detainee Jose Padilla and in another case testing the legal rights of detainees held as enemy combatants at a U.S. military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
O'Connor said the court has ``made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens.''
She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy in her view that Congress had authorized detentions such as Hamdi's in what she called very limited circumstances.
Congress voted shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to give the president significant authority to pursue terrorists, but Hamdi's lawyers said that authority did not extend to the indefinite detention of an American citizen without charges or trial.
Two other justices, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, would have gone further and declared Hamdi's detention improper. Still, they joined O'Connor and the others to say that Hamdi, and by extension others who may be in his position, are entitled to their day in court.
Hamdi and Padilla are in military custody at a Navy brig in South Carolina. They have been interrogated repeatedly without lawyers present.
The Bush administration contends that as ``enemy combatants,'' the men are not entitled to the usual rights of prisoners of war set out in the Geneva Conventions. Enemy combatants are also outside the constitutional protections for ordinary criminal suspects, the government has claimed.
The administration argued that the president alone has authority to order their detention, and that courts have no business second-guessing that decision.
The case has additional resonance because of recent revelations that U.S. soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners and used harsh interrogation methods at a prison outside Baghdad. For some critics of the administration's security measures, the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison illustrated what might go wrong if the military and White House have unchecked authority over prisoners.
At oral arguments in the Padilla case in April, an administration lawyer assured the court that Americans abide by international treaties against torture, and that the president or the military would not allow even mild torture as a means to get information.