"Even assuming that Hamden is a dangerous individual who would cause great harm or death to innocent civilians given the opportunity, the Executive nevertheless must comply with the prevailing rule of law in undertaking to try him and subject him to criminal punishment. " – Justice John Paul Stevens writing the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al.
The United States Supreme Court today rejected the Bush Administration’s contention that it could ignore the United States Constitution and laws and set up kangaroo courts in which to try detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. The Court rejected the argument that the Congress had stripped its jurisdiction by enacting the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. The Court also held that the Executive Branch must obey the law of war, the Geneva Conventions (including Common Article 3), and the UCMJ. In short, the Court held that the President is not above the law, even in a time of war.
By holding that the President must obey the laws, Justice Stevens took a giant bite out of the Unitary Executive theory that the Bush Administration loves and cherishes so much. In rather short order, the legal arguments put forth by John Yoo justifying torture now begin to crumble. The Court’s holding that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions binds the actions of the Executive nullifies the argument used by this Administration to exclude parts of Article 3 from the latest Army Field Manual on interrogation. A house of cards built on the fantasy of an unchecked ruler has crumbled today upon colliding with the United States Constitution.
The Bush Administration’s arguments for Executive overreach have never had firm legal grounding. Their grounding has been based on fear and fanaticism. The debate has always been between fanaticism and reason. Today reason won a temporary reprieve. But the fanatics are still in charge of the Ship of State. The Administration’s principal premise, whether it is to justify torture or to justify indefinite detention, has been that the people we are holding are bad, evil, horrible. Therefore, anything we do to them is justified. Every overreaching act of the Bush Administration has been predicated on that fundamental premise.
The Bush Administration tortures a prisoner because it assumes a priori that the prisoner is a terrorist. Therefore, to extract valuable intelligence that might save lives the Administration must torture the terrorist. The bush Administration detains a prisoner indefinitely because it assumes a priori that the prisoner is a terrorist. Therefore, to protect the safety of all Americans the Administration must detain the terrorist indefinitely.
This underlying premise that all we hold are terrorists has emotional appeal to supporters of the Bush Administration and many Americans who are terrified of an unseen and unpredictable enemy. The Administration knows this and never misses an opportunity to perpetuate this notion:
“The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantanamo are bad people.”
“I mean, these are terrorists for the most part. These are people that were captured in the battlefield of Afghanistan or rounded up as part of the al Qaeda network."
”We’ve already screened the detainees there and released a number, sent them back to their home countries. But what’s left is hard core.” – Vice President Dick Cheney, June 2005
The Administration’s supporters duly follow this line that everyone at Guantanamo Bay and everyone the United States tortures is a terrorist. However, there is plenty of evidence that this is not the case. Many prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were sold to the Americans by enterprising Pakistanis and Afghanis for hefty fees. A large number of these detainees were later found to be innocent and some have been released. There are others at Guantanamo, like Abdur Sayed Rahman and Muhibullah, who are being held there for reasons that defy sanity:
But there are many more, it seems, who sound like Abdur Sayed Rahman, a self-described Pakistani villager who says he was arrested at his modest home in January 2002, flown off to Afghanistan and later accused of being the deputy foreign minister of that country’s deposed Taliban regime.
"I am only a chicken farmer in Pakistan," he protested to American military officers at Guantánamo. "My name is Abdur Sayed Rahman. Abdur Zahid Rahman was the deputy foreign minister of the Taliban."
At one review hearing last year, an Afghan referred to by the single name Muhibullah denied accusations that he was either the former Taliban governor of Shibarghan Province or had worked for the governor. The solution to his case should have been simple, Mr. Muhibullah suggested to the three American officers reviewing his case: They should contact the Shibarghan governor and ask him.
But the presiding Marine Corps colonel said it was really up to the detainee to try to contact the governor. Assuming that the annual review board denied his petition for freedom, noted the officer, whose name was censored from the document, Mr. Muhibullah would have a year to do so.
"How do I find the governor of Shibarghan or anybody?" the detainee asked.
"Write to them," the presiding officer responded. "We know that it is difficult but you need to do your best."
"I appreciate your suggestion, but it is not that easy," Mr. Muhibullah said.
The Bush Administration not only detains people without charge who are not terrorists they have also kidnapped and tortured people who are not terrorists. By not following the laws or international Conventions, the Bush Administration has denied itself the tools to determine who is truly a terrorist and who is being unjustly held and tortured. But, based on their principal premise, the distinction between guilt and innocence need not be made.
Having lost the legal fight it remains to be seen if the Bush Administration will be able to stoke the flames of fear enough to convince the American people to look the other way as it continues to torture and detain "terrorists". The Supreme Court has spoken; will the President listen?