Friday, June 15, 2007

The death of "enemy combatant" status?

This happened on Monday while I was on vacation, but it was important enough I want to mention it: a three-judge panel ruling that a legal resident of the United States is entitled to habeas corpus protections and cannot simply be detained without charge on the president's say-so.

A federal appeals court ruled yesterday that President Bush cannot indefinitely imprison a U.S. resident on suspicion alone, ordering the government either to charge Qatari national Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri with his alleged terrorist crimes in a civilian court or release him.

The opinion is a blow to the Bush administration's assertion that the president has exceptionally broad powers to combat terrorism, including the authority to detain without charges foreign citizens living legally in the United States....

"The President cannot eliminate constitutional protections with the stroke of a pen by proclaiming a civilian, even a criminal civilian, an enemy combatant subject to indefinite military detention," the panel found.

You'd think that would be obvious, wouldn't you? Especially when you consider the circumstances of al-Marri's case: he was indicted, and then the day before his trial was to start -- and when it was clear that defense lawyers would challenge the admission of evidence obtained under torture -- the government dropped the charges, designated him an "enemy combatant", and moved him to a Navy brig. It was a transparent effort to avoid having to subject the basis of his detention to legal scrutiny.

I'm not defending al-Maari, by the way, or arguing that he is innocent; only that he deserves due process just like any other suspect.

The dissenting judge, a Bush appointee, makes the same mistake as all people who advocate indefinite detention for suspected terrorists:

"Although al-Marri was not personally engaged in armed conflict with U.S. forces, he is the type of stealth warrior used by al Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts against the United States," Hudson wrote. "There is little doubt," the judge maintained, that al-Marri was in the country to aid in hostile attacks on the United States.

If there is "little doubt", then put him on trial, convict him and throw away the key. But simply jailing him without a trial is a legal and constitutional travesty.

The opinion is being appealed to the full court, one of the most conservative in the country. Meanwhile, al-Marri remains uncharged and in prison. But the story makes clear the inglorious and failed history of the "enemy combatant" designation. Of the three people it has been used on, one was released rather than given a court trial, one was charged with crimes completely unrelated to the claims that prompted the designation, and the third is al-Marri.

The full text of the ruling is here (pdf). I'll end with some choice quotes and comments.

This does not mean that al-Marri must be set free. Like others accused of terrorist activity in this country, from the Oklahoma City bombers to the surviving conspirator of the September 11th attacks, al-Marri can be returned to civilian prosecutors, tried on criminal charges, and, if convicted, punished severely. But the Government cannot subject al-Marri to indefinite military detention. For in the United States, the military cannot seize and imprison civilians -- let alone imprison them indefinitely....

Exactly. Further, the government has repeatedly acted in bad faith in the case:

Furthermore, the Government’s treatment of al-Marri suggests that, despite its litigation posture, it does not actually believe that the Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) process ... applies to al-Marri. In the four years since the President ordered al-Marri detained as an enemy combatant, the Government has completed CSRTs for each of the more than five hundred detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Yet it was not until November 13, 2006, the very day the Government filed its motion to dismiss the case at hand, that the Government even suggested that al-Marri might be given a CSRT. At that time the Government proffered a memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England directing that al-Marri be provided a CSRT “upon dismissal” of this case. This memorandum is too little too late....

The Government’s argument that the phrase “awaiting [a CSRT] determination” covers persons confined within the United States yields a strange result. It would mean that Congress assured that Guantanamo Bay detainees were provided with an administrative factfinding process (the CSRT) followed by judicial review in the D.C. Circuit when eliminating habeas jurisdiction over their cases -- but that Congress provided neither any substitute administrative procedure nor any form of judicial review when eliminating the habeas rights of those captured and detained within the United States. The Government offers nothing to indicate that Congress embarked on this strange course, and the legislative history of the MCA renders that theory untenable.

Perhaps because the Government knows that Congress did not intend the CSRT process to apply to persons like al-Marri, the England memorandum neither convenes nor even schedules a CSRT for al-Marri. Indeed, in its motion to dismiss, the Government acknowledges that the England memorandum only indicates “how the government plans to handle al-Marri in the event the courts agree that the MCA divested the courts of jurisdiction.” Thus, the England memorandum makes al-Marri’s CSRT at best conditional -- triggered only “in the event” that we dismiss this litigation. In other words, the memorandum says only that al-Marri might receive a CSRT if this court dismisses his petition because he is awaiting a CSRT, but al-Marri will be awaiting a CSRT only if we dismiss his petition.

This is the sort of tortured and cynical legal posturing that Alberto Gonzales became famous for.

The core assumption underlying the Government’s position, notwithstanding Hamdi, Padilla, Quirin, Milligan, and Hamdan, seems to be that persons lawfully within this country, entitled to the protections of our Constitution, lose their civilian status and become “enemy combatants” if they have allegedly engaged in criminal conduct on behalf of an organization seeking to harm the United States. Of course, a person who commits a crime should be punished, but when a civilian protected by the Due Process Clause commits a crime he is subject to charge, trial, and punishment in a civilian court, not to seizure and confinement by military authorities.

We recognize the understandable instincts of those who wish to treat domestic terrorists as “combatants” in a “global war on terror.” Allegations of criminal activity in association with a terrorist organization, however, do not permit the Government to transform a civilian into an enemy combatant subject to indefinite
military detention....


Finally, I urge you to read the section (starting on page 63) that deals with the president's claim of "inherent authority". After laying out the precedents, the ruling efficiently demolishes the claim starting on page 69. A taste:

In sum, al-Marri is not a subject of a country with which the United States is at war, and he did not illegally enter the United States nor is he alleged to have committed any other immigration violation.... The President’s constitutional powers do not allow him to order the military to seize and detain indefinitely al-Marri without criminal process any more than they permit the President to order the military to seize and detain, without criminal process, other terrorists within the United States, like the Unabomber or the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing.... we can only conclude that ... the President claims power that far exceeds that granted to him by the Constitution.

The dissent by Judge Hudson begins on page 78. It relies heavily on the Rapp Declaration (pdf) to justify al-Maari's enemy combatant status. He makes much of the fact that Rapp remains unrebutted -- even though the basis of al-Maari's appeal is that the onus of proof is on the government to justify the detention in the first place. In that context, the Rapp declaration is simply the unexamined assertions of a government intelligence official.

The case doesn't spell the end of "enemy combatant" status -- even if upheld by the full appeals court. The opinion notes (starting on page 38) that there are cases where the enemy combatant status may be used -- essentially, when a defendant is shown to have been associated with the military arm of a foreign government and been present in a war zone where U.S. forces were engaged. Indeed, the court argues (though I disagree) that the designation of Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant was justified because of this. In my view, Padilla never took up arms against the United States on a battlefield; thus he wasn't a soldier, and thus not a "combatant." He deserves a vigorous criminal prosecution, but not military detention.

What it does do, however (assuming the ruling is upheld) is spell the end of the arbitrary use of that designation based solely on the president's say-so.

On a more general level, the ruling provides a clear and legal argument structure for why terrorism is largely a criminal problem, not a military one. At base, it says that someone associated with a terrorist organization should be treated as a criminal, not a combatant -- with all the rights and limitations that entails. Indeed, it argues that such a person cannot be subjected to military justice. I've long argued the same, and I'm confident that eventually jurisprudence will reach the same conclusion.

And finally, Bush appears to be doing for presidential power what he has already done for neo-conservatism -- that is, set back by 20 years a cause he claims to champion. In the case of neo-conservatism, his execution of the Iraq invasion and occupation has discredited the entire idea to the point that "neo-con" is an insult. In the case of presidential power, his constant and aggressive pushing of the envelope has triggered a series of Congressional actions and court rulings that have put firmer limits on executive power than existed before. I'm all for clear lines, but I would be very wary about having Bush on my side in any sort of political or legal argument. The man is poison, be it through incompetence or sheer hubris.

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Anonymous kindlingman said...

Good posting. Thanks.
If Bush were awake, he would be saying "Oh, did I do that?" and "oops, I did it again."
The man is a disaster, a coward,and a bully.
The whole (wrong) point of Iraq was to prevent precisely what Hugo Chavez is doing now in South America.
It will not be easy to clean up this spilt milk in the Middle East.

6/16/2007 7:24 AM  
Anonymous kindlingman said...

p.s. The link to the full text of the ruling may be broken.I was not directed to the page.

6/16/2007 7:28 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Thanks for the heads up. Link is fixed.

6/16/2007 11:44 AM  

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