When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Bush Administration’s detainment and interrogation policies in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, it raised hopes that Congress would act to protect our nation’s values by permanently restricting the presidential powers that the court had temporarily suspended. However, the version of the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress last week does not adequately check the president’s overreach of executive power. Instead, this bill has gaping flaws and leaves far too much to the interpretation of an administration that has repeatedly proven itself untrustworthy.
The detainee bill explicitly denies combatants captured by the United States the ability to seek a writ of habeas corpus and leaves detainees little chance of challenging their detention in court. Furthermore, it allows the executive branch to interpret the Geneva Conventions and declare any detainee an enemy combatant, regardless of the circumstances of capture. This bill is not only a mistake in how we view ourselves in the war against terrorism and how we view our enemy – it undermines some of our most important legal traditions.
Detainees in American custody now have little recourse to end their imprisonment, regardless of guilt or innocence. Those in custody who are declared enemy combatants are denied the right to habeas corpus, the 900-year-old tradition most Western countries protect to ensure that the government cannot imprison people illegally. Without that right in place, detainees can be barred from taking their case to federal court to plead their innocence. For many detainees who are being held on little or no real evidence, this bill damns them to indefinite imprisonment with little hope of being freed.
The section of the bill regarding the Geneva Conventions states that the president has the right to interpret their meaning with regards to torture and mistreatment of detainees. Such vague wording of the document defining torture is unacceptable, especially under an executive as irresponsible as this one. This administration oversaw the abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. Without stricter definitions of what constitutes appropriate treatment of detainees, the government can bend the definition of torture to suit its needs, which defeats the point of a bill defining what is and is not torture.
The version of the bill that was passed – after several crucial amendments, including one to include habeas corpus, were defeated by close margins – is a stab at the heart of our democracy. Winning the war against terrorism is about protecting the values for which our country stands; to think that we can compromise our core beliefs of fairness and justice because terrorists do not believe in them misses the point of winning any war. The supporters of the detainee bill that was passed in Congress feel it was an acceptable compromise between our beliefs and the ability to wage war against terrorism. This compromise is a mistake, one that leads us down a dangerous path. If we tamper with our democratic traditions by removing people’s rights, we are lower ourselves in the eyes of the world and make victory in this war against terrorism impossible.