One Zany Day in the Life of the War on Terror
There are some days on the terror-law beat that drone on endlessly. You read the same old briefs alleging the same old civil rights violations made by the same old creepy government officials. And then there are days like today, when chaos and consternation abound, and the turf upon which the legal war has been fought suddenly heaves up and is made new again.
Where should I start? I suppose I could start with the pathetic performance offered this morning by the nation's top lawyer, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who seems more hapless, overwhelmed, disrespected, and ineffective each time he appears in public. On this occasion, Gonzales played it coy with the Senate Judiciary Committee when its chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked for information about the terms of a deal reached between the White House and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-- which was created by Congress, remember, nearly 30 years ago. Even though the Court signalled it would be happy to share the information with the Congress, Gonzales warned that "there's going to be information about operational details about how we're doing this that we want to keep confidential." It's no wonder that Sen. Leahy suggested the matter had entered "Alice in Wonderland" territory.
And as if that silliness weren't enough, the Pentagon chose today to announce that it had, as expected, followed the language and intent of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and changed its tribunal rules so that some of the detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba could begin to be prosecuted. Even though the new rules generally track the language of the federal law-- for better and for worse-- the Pentagon's declaration brought with it an immediate, spasmodic reaction by the chattering class about the possibility that one or more of the detainees could be sentenced to death following a conviction that was based upon hearsay evidence or information gleaned from "coercion" (whatever that means).
It's true that the new military rules are better than the old ones, which were struck down by the Supreme Court. It's true that the Justices could again get involved to evaluate some of the more problematic new rules and delay Gitmo trials for another few years. And it's true that Congress can hop back into this fight and change the law again. But as one Pentagon lawyer said Thursday, things are moving forward down there, maybe this time for real. It wouldn't surprise me if 2007 is finally the year in which we begin to see some military tribunals at work. For all of its farce, for all of its political nonsense, for all of its bad policy, today was a huge day in the legal war on terror.
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