By Araceli Cruz
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
"[The Military Commissions Act] is unconstitutional. It is un-American. It is designed to insure that the Bush-Cheney administration will never again be embarrassed by a United States Supreme Court decision reviewing its unlawful abuses of power."
Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy, January 4, 2007
"We can be confident that our program remainsas it always has beenfully compliant with U.S. law, the Constitution, and our international treaty obligations . . . The Military Commissions Act gives the legal clarity and legislative support necessary to continue a program that has been one of our country's most effective tools in the fight against terrorism."
CIA director Michael Hayden, in a message to CIA personnel on the president's signing into law the Military Commissions Act, October 17, 2006. The act allows the CIA to continue its secret prisonsand "renditions" of terrorism suspects for torture in other countries.
Pat Leahy was a local prosecutor in Vermont before he was elected to the United States Senate in 1974. During the tumultuous years since then, he has become one of the few deeply knowledgeable and passionate protectors of the Constitution in Congress. He would have agreed with what the late Supreme Court justice William Brennan told me in the last of our frequent conversations:
"Look, pal, we've always knownthe Framers knewthat liberty is a fragile thing."
For the past six years, more Americans have become aware of this fragilityas some of our basic liberties continue to recede, now reaching a new, especially dangerous development in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, spawned by the Bush-Cheney administration.
Among its "chilling" provisions, Leahy says, "inserted [by the White House] in the dark of night in the final days before the bill's passage," is a greatly expanded definition of "enemy combatants." This expansion includes "people that any group of decision-makers selected by the President decides to call 'enemy combatants' "and put into cells.
If these prisoners are legal noncitizen immigrants in this country, they will have no habeas corpus rights to go into court to challenge why they are being heldand they can be "detained" indefinitely. If American citizens are declared "enemy combatants," they can have lawyers in our courts, but the MCA severely diminishes their rights to due process.
Leahy has now joined with Democratic senators Russell Feingold (Wisconsin) and Robert Menendez (New Jersey) as co-sponsors of a bill introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut that directly challenges George W. Bush in its title: "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007."
A subtitle to the billintended to counter critics' charges that these Democratic senators aren't "tough" enough on terroristsis: "A bill to provide for the effective prosecution of terrorists and guarantee due process rights."
As I write this, Pat Leahy is working the Senate floor to add supporters to the bill. If the "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007" is passed, and possibly has to overcome a presidential veto, the Roberts Supreme Courtduring this term or nextwill first have to decide on the constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act, which is corrected by this new law. The MCA overturns two previous Supreme Court decisions on these issues.
Those two decisionsRasul v. Bush (2004) and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)gave both noncitizen and citizen "enemy combatants" access to habeas corpus and to our civilian courts. Once it becomes law, the "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007" will bring us back to doing justice.
One of the key provisions of this bill includes restoring the writ of habeas corpus for all persons held in U.S. custody. And it "narrows the definition [erasing the MCA's sweepingly broad version] of unlawful enemy combatants to individuals who directly participate in a zone of active combat against the United States, and individuals who participated in attacks against the U.S. on September 11, 2001." (Emphasis added.)
Dodd inserted this provision because under the MCA, you could become an unlawful enemy combatant for contributing a small amount of money to a charity on a suspected "terrorist" government list.
In trials of enemy combatants, the new law now bars the use of torture and testimony based on unreliable hearsay evidence.
Also, contrary to the MCA, the United States must "live up to its Geneva Conventions obligations by allowing detainees at trial to invoke their rights under the Geneva Conventions. Furthermore, the accused can retain qualified civilian attorneys at trial instead of military lawyers." (Emphasis added.) These lawyers have been previously instructed by the Defense Department to disregard the presumption of innocence.
I am heartened to tell you that companion legislation to the "Restoring the Constitution Act of 2007" has been introduced in the House by Jane Harman of California (who was wrongly barred by Nancy Pelosi from heading the Intelligence Committee) and my congressman here in Greenwich Village, Jerry Nadler. It's worth noting that the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers of Michigan, welcomes this bill.
Among the supporters of these Senate and House bills are the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Center for Victims of Torture, the Open Society Institute, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, andI hopeyou!