The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a legal challenge to the Bush administration's use of military tribunals to try foreign terror suspects.
The high court's decision to consider the legality of the tribunals is seen as a major test of the government's authority to detain and try suspected terrorists as part of the war on terror.
The specific case involves a Yemeni man, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who is accused of being a driver and bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.
The Supreme Court will now decide whether Mr. Hamdan can be tried for war crimes before U.S. military officers at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Hamdan is one of about 500 foreigners being held at Guantanamo Bay on suspicion of being al-Qaida or Taleban supporters rounded up during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
In July of 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that foreigners suspected of terrorist links should have access to U.S. courts. That decision was welcomed by civil liberties groups and some academics like Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole. "We must maintain a commitment to the rule of law, that 'trust us' is not an appropriate way of proceeding. And I think that is critically important, not only to maintaining a constitutional democracy, which is important in and of itself, but also to maintaining our security," he said.
President Bush approved the idea of military tribunals not long after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. "It is in our national interests, for our national security interests, that we have a military tribunal available," he said.
The Hamdan case will likely be heard early next year and may well delay the start of the military tribunals, at least for a while.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Jeffrey McCausland lectures on military issues at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He says the Supreme Court's decision to consider the legality of the tribunals is a potential setback for the Bush administration.
"They were somewhat surprised, particularly based on the adjustments they had made on the conduct of the (military) commissions, which they thought would satisfy all legal questions. This whole commission process, which has been dragged out for a long period of time, has been on hold for a year, now will go on hold again," he said.
Bush administration officials had argued that the Supreme Court had no need to hear the Hamdan case because the Defense Department had already decided to relax some of the rules for the tribunals to make it easier for the accused to have access to the evidence against them, including classified materials.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the case by next July.