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Context of 'February 1, 2007: Bush Administration Lawyer Claims US Citizens Can Be Charged Under Military Commissions Act'

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Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, from Qatar but a legal US resident, arrives in the US with his wife and five children, reportedly to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. [Peoria Journal Star, 12/19/2001; New York Times, 6/21/2004] Al-Marri appears to have been sent to the US by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). During his interrogation, KSM will identify al-Marri as “the point of contact for al-Qaeda operatives arriving in the US for September 11 follow-on operations.” He will describe al-Marri as “the perfect sleeper agent because he has studied in the United States, had no criminal record, and had a family with whom he could travel.” [Newsweek, 6/15/2003] However, there are doubts about the reliability of KSM’s interrogation, which is believed that have been obtained through the use of torture (see June 16, 2004). Al-Marri also lived in Illinois for part of 2000 under a different name. [New York Daily News, 1/11/2003] He is apparently related to Mohamed al-Khatani, who attempted to enter the US in August 2001 to join the 9/11 plot (see July 2002). [New York Times, 6/21/2004] In December 2001, al-Marri will be detained as a material witness to the 9/11 attacks (see December 12, 2001).

Entity Tags: Mohamed al-Khatani, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The US Congress adopts a joint resolution, the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), that determines that “the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Congress also states that the “grave acts of violence” committed on the US “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to [its] national security and foreign policy.” [US Congress, 9/14/2001] President Bush signs the resolution into law on September 18. [White House, 9/18/2001] The passage of the AUMF served another purpose: to extend presidential power. While the Defense Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff intended the AUMF to define the conflict in narrow terms, and authorize the US to move militarily against al-Qaeda and its confederates, and the Taliban, Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington, had a larger goal. Attorney Scott Horton, who has written two major studies on interrogation of terrorism suspects for the New York City Bar Association, says in 2005 that Cheney and Addington “really wanted [the AUMF defined more broadly], because it provided the trigger for this radical redefinition of presidential power.” Addington helped draft a Justice Department opinion in late 2001, written by lawyer John Yoo (see Late September 2001), that asserted Congress cannot “place any limits on the president’s determinations as to any terrorist threat, the amount of military force to be used in response, or the method, timing, and nature of the response.” [US News and World Report, 5/21/2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Taliban, Scott Horton, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, David S. Addington, George W. Bush, John C. Yoo, Al-Qaeda, Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) is characterized by many as not applying to US citizens. Law professor Marty Lederman disagrees. Under the MCA, Lederman says, “if the Pentagon says you’re an unlawful enemy combatant—using whatever criteria they wish—then as far as Congress, and US law, is concerned, you are one, whether or not you have had any connection to ‘hostilities’ at all.” [Unclaimed Territory, 9/28/2006] Six months later, an administration lawyer will confirm that the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).

Entity Tags: Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Military Commissions Act, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law.President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act into law. [Source: White House]President Bush signs the Military Commissions Act (MCA) into law. [White House, 10/17/2006] The MCA is designed to give the president the authority to order “enemy detainees” tried by military commissions largely outside the scope of US civil and criminal procedures. The bill was requested by the Bush administration after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (see June 28, 2004) that the US could not hold prisoners indefinitely without access to the US judicial system, and that the administration’s proposal that they be tried by military tribunals was unconstitutional (see June 28, 2004). [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] It is widely reported that the MCA does not directly apply to US citizens, but to only non-citizens defined as “enemy combatants. [CBS News, 10/19/2006] However, six months later, a Bush administration lawyer will confirm that the administration believes the law does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).
Sweeping New Executive Powers - The MCA virtually eliminates the possibility that the Supreme Court can ever again act as a check on a president’s power in the war on terrorism. Similarly, the law gives Congressional approval to many of the executive powers previously, and unilaterally, seized by the Bush administration. Former Justice Department official John Yoo celebrates the MCA, writing, “Congress… told the courts, in effect, to get out of the war on terror” (see October 19, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 319, 322]
'Abandoning' Core 'Principles' - The bill passed the Senate on a 65-34 vote, and the House by a 250-170 vote. The floor debate was often impassioned and highly partisan; House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) called Democrats who opposed the bill “dangerous,” and Senate Judiciary Committee member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said this bill showed that the US is losing its “moral compass.” Leahy asked during the debate, “Why would we allow the terrorists to win by doing to ourselves what they could never do, and abandon the principles for which so many Americans today and through our history have fought and sacrificed?” Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) had said he would vote against it because it is “patently unconstitutional on its face,” but then voted for it, saying he believes the courts will eventually “clean it up.” Specter’s attempt to amend the bill to provide habeas corpus rights for enemy combatants was defeated, as were four Democratic amendments. Republicans have openly used the debate over the MCA as election-year fodder, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) saying after the vote that “House Democrats have voted to protect the rights of terrorists,” and Boehner decrying “the Democrats’ irrational opposition to strong national security policies.” Democrats such as Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) say they will not fight back at such a level. “There will be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces, and we will be called everything from cut-and-run quitters to Defeatocrats, to people who care more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans,” Obama says. “While I know all of this, I’m still disappointed, and I’m still ashamed, because what we’re doing here today—a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused—should be bigger than politics.” [Washington Post, 10/19/2006] After winning the vote, Hastert accused Democrats who opposed the bill of “putting their liberal agenda ahead of the security of America.” Hastert said the Democrats “would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans’ lives” and create “new rights for terrorists.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Enemy Combatants - The MCA applies only to “enemy combatants.” Specifically, the law defines an “unlawful enemy combatant” as a person “who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents,” and who is not a lawful combatant. Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch says the definition far exceeds the traditionally accepted definition of combatant as someone who directly participates in hostilities. But under the MCA, someone who provides “material support” for terrorists—whether that be in the form of financial contributions or sweeping the floors at a terrorist camp—can be so defined. Worse, the label can be applied without recourse by either Bush or the secretary of defense, after a “competent tribunal” makes the determination. The MCA provides no guidelines as to what criteria these tribunals should use. Taken literally, the MCA gives virtually unrestricted power to the tribunals to apply the label as requested by the president or the secretary. Mariner believes the definition is both “blatantly unconstitutional” and a direct contradiction of centuries of Supreme Court decisions that define basic judicial rights. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] Under this definition, the president can imprison, without charge or trial, any US citizen accused of donating money to a Middle East charity that the government believes is linked to terrorist activity. Citizens associated with “fringe” groups such as the left-wing Black Panthers or right-wing militias can be incarcerated without trial or charge. Citizens accused of helping domestic terrorists can be so imprisoned. Law professor Bruce Ackerman calls the MCA “a massive Congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants,” and warns that the law may “haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack” by enabling a round of mass detentions similar to the roundup of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. [Savage, 2007, pp. 322]
Military Commissions - The MCA mandates that enemy combatants are to be tried by military commissions, labeled “regularly constituted courts that afford all the necessary ‘judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples’ for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” The commissions must have a minimum of five commissioned military officers and a military judge; if death is a possible penalty, the commissions must have at least 12 officers. The defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; convictions require a two-thirds vote. Sentences of beyond 10 years require a three-quarters vote, and death penalties must be unanimously voted for. Defendants may either represent themselves or by military or civilian counsel. The court procedures themselves, although based on standard courts-martial proceedings, are fluid, and can be set or changed as the secretary of defense sees fit. Statements obtained through methods defined as torture are inadmissible, but statements take by coercion and “cruel treatment” can be admitted. The MCA sets the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA—see December 15, 2005) as a benchmark—statements obtained before the December 30, 2005 enactment of that law can be used, even if the defendant was “coerced,” if a judge finds the statement “reasonable and possessing sufficient probative value.” Statements after that date must have been taken during interrogations that fall under the DTA guidelines. Defendants have the right to examine and respond to evidence seen by the commission, a provision originally opposed by the administration. However, if the evidence is classified, an unclassified summary of that material is acceptable, and classified exculpatory evidence can be denied in lieu of what the MCA calls “acceptable substitutes.” Hearsay evidence is admissible, as is evidence obtained without search warrants. Generally, defendants will not be allowed to inquire into the classified “sources, methods, or activities” surrounding evidence against them. Some human rights activists worry that evidence obtained through torture can be admitted, and the fact that it was obtained by torture, if that detail is classified, will not be presented to the court or preclude the evidence from being used. Public access to the commissions will be quite limited. Many experts claim these commissions are illegal both by US constitutional law and international law. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
Secret Courts - The military tribunals can be partially or completely closed to public scrutiny if the presiding judge deems such an action necessary to national security. The government can convey such concerns to the judge without the knowledge of the defense. The judge can exclude the accused from the trial if he deems it necessary for safety or if he decides the defendant is “disruptive.” Evidence can be presented in secret, without the knowledge of the defense and without giving the defense a chance to examine that evidence, if the judge finds that evidence “reliable.” And during the trial, the prosecution can at any time assert a “national security privilege” that would stop “the examination of any witness” if that witness shows signs of discussing sensitive security matters. This provision can easily be used to exclude any potential defense witness who might “breach national security” with their testimony. Author and investigative reporter Robert Parry writes, “In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel ‘star chamber’ system for the prosecution, imprisonment, and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.” [Consortium News, 10/19/2006]
Appeals - Guilty verdicts are automatically appealed to a Court of Military Commission Review, consisting of three appellate military justices. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals has extremely limited authority of review of the commissions; even its authority to judge whether a decision is consistent with the Constitution is limited “to the extent [that the Constitution is] applicable.”
Types of Crimes - Twenty-eight specific crimes fall under the rubric of the military commissions, including conspiracy (not a traditional war crime), murder of protected persons, murder in violation of the bill of war, hostage-taking, torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, mutilation or maiming, rape, sexual abuse or assault, hijacking, terrorism, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006]
CIA Abuses - The MCA, responding to the recent Supreme Court decision of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (see June 30, 2006) that found the CIA’s secret detention program and abusive interrogation practices illegal, redefines and amends the law to make all but the most pernicious interrogation practices, even those defined as torture by the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions, legal. The MCA actually rules that the Geneva Conventions are all but unenforceable in US courts. It also provides retroactive protection under the law to all actions as far back as November 1997. Under the MCA, practices such as waterboarding, stress positioning, and sleep deprivation cannot be construed as torture. [FindLaw, 10/9/2006] The MCA even states that rape as part of interrogations cannot be construed as torture unless the intent of the rapist to torture his victim can be proven, a standard rejected by international law. The MCA provides such a narrow definition of coercion and sexual abuse that most of the crimes perpetrated at Abu Ghraib are now legal. [Jurist, 10/4/2006] Although the MCA seems to cover detainee abuse for all US agencies, including the CIA, Bush says during the signing of the bill, “This bill will allow the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives.” International law expert Scott Horton will note, “The administration wanted these prohibitions on the military and not on the CIA, but it did not work out that way.” Apparently Bush intends to construe the law to exempt the CIA from its restrictions, such as they are, on torture and abuse of prisoners. [Salon, 5/22/2007]
No Habeas Corpus Rights - Under the MCA, enemy combatants no longer have the right to file suit under the habeas corpus provision of US law. This means that they cannot challenge the legality of their detention, or raise claims of torture and mistreatment. Even detainees who have been released can never file suit to seek redress for their treatment while in US captivity. [FindLaw, 10/25/2006]
Retroactive Immunity - The administration added a provision to the MCA that rewrote the War Crimes Act retroactively to November 26, 1997, making any offenses considered war crimes before the MCA is adopted no longer punishable under US law. Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write in 2007 that the only reason he can fathom for the change is to protect administration officials—perhaps including President Bush himself—from any future prosecutions as war criminals. Dean will note that if the administration actually believes in the inherent and indisputable powers of the presidency, as it has long averred, then it would not worry about any such criminal liability. [Dean, 2007, pp. 239-240]

Entity Tags: Human Rights Watch, Joanne Mariner, US Supreme Court, Patrick J. Leahy, Military Commissions Act, John Dean, George W. Bush, Scott Horton, Geneva Conventions, Bruce Ackerman, Dennis Hastert, American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Detainee Treatment Act, Arlen Specter, War Crimes Act, Barack Obama, Central Intelligence Agency, Bush administration (43), John Boehner

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The New York Times pens an editorial issuing a grim warning about the ramifications of the newly passed Military Commission Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006). The editorial calls the law’s stripping of habeas corpus rights for so-called “enemy combatants” “undemocratic.” It criticizes the highly charged rhetoric of the Republicans who attacked Democrats in opposition to the law as part of the Republican Party’s “scare-America-first strategy” for the upcoming midterm elections. The Times notes that President Bush misled the country into believing that the MCA is the only way the country has of adequately putting 9/11 suspects on trial: “The truth is that Mr. Bush could have done that long ago, but chose to detain them illegally at hidden CIA camps to extract information. He sent them to Guantanamo only to stampede Congress into passing the new law. The 60 or so men at Guantanamo who are now facing tribunals—out of about 450 inmates—also could have been tried years ago if Mr. Bush had not rebuffed efforts by Congress to create suitable courts. He imposed a system of kangaroo courts that was more about expanding his power than about combating terrorism.” The editorial criticizes Bush’s new “separate system of justice for any foreigner whom Mr. Bush chooses to designate as an ‘illegal enemy combatant,” one that “raises insurmountable obstacles for prisoners to challenge their detentions [and] does not require the government to release prisoners who are not being charged, or a prisoner who is exonerated by the tribunals.” However, the editorial gives false comfort to its readers by asserting that the MCA “does not apply to American citizens, but it does apply to other legal United States residents.” [New York Times, 10/19/2006]
Times Errs in Stating MCA Does Not Apply to US Citizens - Most other mainstream media outlets do not mention the possibility of the MCA applying to US citizens. But on the same day as the Times editorial, author and investigative journalist Robert Parry gives a powerful argument that the MCA can indeed be applied to them. The MCA reads in part, “Any person is punishable as a principal under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission.… Any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States… shall be punished as a military commission… may direct.” The legal meaning of “any person,” Parry notes, clearly includes US citizens, particularly those who may act “in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States.” Parry asks, “Who has ‘an allegiance or duty to the United States’ if not an American citizen? That provision would not presumably apply to Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, nor would it apply generally to foreign citizens. This section of the law appears to be singling out American citizens.” If an American citizen is charged with a crime under the MCA, that citizen, like the foreign nationals currently laboring under the weight of the law, cannot challenge their detention and charges under the habeas corpus provisions of US law, and cannot expect a fair trial. They will not be given the chance to appeal their convictions until they are prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. And since the MCA defendant has no right to a “speedy trial,” that defendant cannot expect to be granted an appeal in any reasonable length of time. In effect, an American citizen, like a foreign national charged under the MCA, can be imprisoned indefinitely without recourse to the US judiciary.
Potential to Jail Media Leakers and Reporters - One aspect of the MCA that has not been widely discussed, Parry notes, is the provision that would allow the incarceration of “any person” who “collects or attempts to collect information by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States.” That provision is tremendously vague, and could easily be stretched to fit, for example, the whistleblowers who revealed the existence of the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program to the Times (see December 15, 2005) and the reporters and editors who published the story based on those revelations. [Consortium News, 10/19/2006] Six months later, a Justice Department lawyer will confirm that the Bush administration believes MCA does indeed apply to US citizens (see February 1, 2007).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, Al-Qaeda, Military Commissions Act, New York Times, US Department of Justice, Robert Parry

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Bush administration confirms that it believes US citizens can be designated as “enemy combatants” under the Military Commissions Act (MCA—see October 17, 2006). The confirmation comes during the trial of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari and the only person on the American mainland being held as an enemy combatant. Al-Marri, currently held at the Charleston, South Carolina Naval brig, is a legal US resident accused of being a sleeper agent for al-Qaeda (see September 10, 2001). He was arrested in December 2001, while living with his family and studying computer science at Bradley University in Illinois. Al-Marri is charged, not with any direct terrorist activities, but with credit card fraud and lying to federal agents. He is challenging his indefinite detention in federal court, and the government is using the MCA to argue that al-Marri has no status in the courts because of his designation as an enemy combatant. One of the appellate court judges, Roger Gregory, asks Justice Department lawyer David Salmons, “What would prevent you from plucking up anyone and saying, ‘You are an enemy combatant?’” Salmons responds that the government can do just that, without interference from the courts, and adds, “A citizen, no less than an alien, can be an enemy combatant.” Gregory and the second of the three appellate judges, Diana Gribbon Motz, seem uncomfortable with the law’s provisions that the US judiciary has no role in such designations. When Motz asks Salmons about the difference between nations making war and individuals committing acts of terrorism, Salmons retorts with a familiar, and long-disputed, argument that the US Congress gave the government the right to detain terrorist suspects without charge or recourse to the judiciary when it granted the administration the right to use military force against terrorists after the 9/11 attacks (see September 14-18, 2001).
Theoretically Declaring War on PETA - Motz is skeptical of the argument, and asks a series of hypothetical questions about just what organizations or individuals President Bush could designate as enemy combatants. Using the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as an example, Motz asks, “Could the president declare war on PETA?” Salmons says the question is unrealistic, but refuses to say that Bush could not do so if he chose. The Bush administration is careful in its use of the enemy combatant designation, Salmons says, therefore, “The representative of PETA can sleep well at night.” [New York Times, 2/2/2007]
Ignoring Constitutional Concept of 'Inalienable Rights' - Author and investigative journalist Robert Parry notes that in the al-Marri case, the Bush administration is arguing against the concept of “inalienable,” or “unalienable,” rights as granted by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. According to the administration, as long as the US is embroiled in what it calls the “war on terror,” Bush can use his “plenary,” or unlimited, executive powers to essentially waive laws and ignore Constitutional rights if he so chooses. Parry writes that “since the ‘war on terror’ will go on indefinitely and since the ‘battlefield’ is everywhere, Bush is asserting the president’s right to do whatever he wants to whomever he wants wherever the person might be, virtually forever.” Parry concludes, “The Justice Department’s arguments in the [al-]Marri case underscore that Bush still sees himself as a modern-day version of the absolute monarch who gets to decide which rights and freedoms his subjects can enjoy and which ones will be denied.” [Consortium News, 2/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Military Commissions Act, Bush administration (43), Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Al-Qaeda, David Salmons, George W. Bush, Robert Parry, Roger Gregory, Diana Gribbon Motz, US Department of Justice, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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