Wednesday, October 04, 2006

More on Military Commissions

A few comments on the recently-passed "Military Commissions Act" (MCA) passed by Congress and on its way to the White House. There are a number of concerns about this bill, not least among them the fact that very few of those in the Senate who voted on it actually read the final version sent to the White House. Three Republican Senators (McCain, Graham, and Warner) objected to the bill as originally written. They worked out a compromise with the White House, and reached agreement on a number of issues that had concerned them. The bill then went into committee to have the differences between the House and Senate versions finalized, and wrote up the actual law that got voted on, then sent to the President for signing.

This was all done in a huge rush (so that the prisoners currently detained could be dealt with in a timely fashion if you believe the White House, or so that it could be used as an election-year club to beat on Democrats with if you believe the President's opponents). The final version of the 200-page bill thus passed without the Senators having time to see what changed in committee.

Shockingly, it turns out that there were some very significant differences between this final version and the "compromise" version these Senatators thought they'd agreed on. Here's Molly Ivins (raving liberal, granted), on what changed:

The version of the detainee bill now in the Senate not only undoes much of the McCain-Warner-Graham work, but it is actually much worse than the administration’s first proposal. In one change, the original compromise language said a suspect had the right to “examine and respond to” all evidence used against him. The three senators said the clause was necessary to avoid secret trials. The bill has now dropped the word “examine” and left only “respond to.”

In another change, a clause said that evidence obtained outside the United States could be admitted in court even if it had been gathered without a search warrant. But the bill now drops the words “outside the United States,” which means prosecutors can ignore American legal standards on warrants.

The bill also expands the definition of an unlawful enemy combatant to cover anyone who has “has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” Quick, define “purposefully and materially.” One person has already been charged with aiding terrorists because he sold a satellite TV package that includes the Hezbollah network.

The bill simply removes a suspect’s right to challenge his detention in court. This is a rule of law that goes back to the Magna Carta in 1215. That pretty much leaves the barn door open.

After the bill passed, and the changes were brought to light (conveniently too late, the vote had already happened), McCain has been quoted as saying that he believes the bill is probably unconstitutional.

Another area of concern is whether or not the more egregious portions of the bill apply to US citizens. The language of the bill is, unfortunately, quite ambiguous on this question, as outlined here. I find it reprehensible that the Senate could pass a bill that is unclear on this point. Their obligation -- to you, to me, to the citizens of the United States they are sworn to protect -- is to ensure that they know what they're passing, especially with a bill like this that touches on core issues of our liberty.

Does the MCA apply to US Citizens? Can the President now legally capture US Citizens on the street soley on his say-so that they are unlawful enemy combatants? Nobody really knows for sure, and that is why it is an abomination that this bill passed without even being read. McCain, Warner, and Graham got suckered into thinking they'd won a compromise, only to have the guts of that agreement ripped out in committee, and the resultant law passed without them even knowing what it said.

I don't trust people, and I damn sure don't trust politicians. Giving the Office of the President such broad, ambiguous authority is a huge mistake, regardless of whether it's George Bush or Hillary Clinton who will be in office to wield it. Our laws exist to protect us from abuse by those who wield power -- that is the entire point of the Constitution. Power corrupts, and sidestepping our protections from those in power (whether by accident or on purpose) is about the most foolish thing I can think of. Shame on those Senators who voted for this horrible bill without doing even the minimum necessary to know what they were enacting.


Adam H said...



war is peace.

freedom is slavery.

ignorance is strength.

seriously, this whole thing comes as a surprise. i always thought that the police state would come from the left, since they've held that govenment should solve our problems. i just didn't see the right hook coming. i feel pretty duped.

Jeff Hebert said...

Adam, I think that's a very good point.

Threats to liberty can come from any ideology, any philosophy, any political movement. The impulse to control others is strong in us, no matter what party or side we're on, and that's why party-neutral, power-neutral safeguards built in to the very system are an absolute necessity, coupled with constant wariness. As Wendell Phillips said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

It's my belief (shared by many others across the political spectrum, including such wild-eyed liberal scumbags as George Will) that this particular administration has assaulted liberty from the right. But you're exactly right, it could just as easily have come from the Left.

The threat is not inherent to any given party or ideology, but from whoever tries to undermine liberty. In this case, it happens to be George Bush and the Republican Party. I like to think that if it were Al Gore and the Democrats who'd won and were doing the same thing, that I'd be just as outraged. I don't hate this legislation because it comes from Bush or Republicans, I hate it because it's poison to liberty.

I've voted Republican before, and I could see myself doing so again one day, if Demorats were to fall into the same kind of corrupt power-mongering they were prey to in the early 80's. They and the left in general could easily fall into the same traps, becoming a threat to the Constitution and to the principles that keep us free.

But at this particular moment in time, the specific group threatening our system of government happens to be rightist Republicans, with George Bush, John Yoo, and Dick Cheney as their leaders. They are using fear as their excuse, convincing people that only by surrendering the very liberties the terrorists wish to take away can we be safe from those who wish to harm us. Which reminds me of the famous quote generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Anonymous said...

Odd that the news didn't seem to be covering this little bit of serious legislation. Oh, that's right, there was the whole Foley scandal. My what coincidental timing of the exposure of that long known "secret". And people wonder why conspiracy theory is rampant.