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Pentagon Caught Off-Guard by Supreme Court Detainee Ruling - 2004-06-29

Defense officials were expecting what they believed would be a big court victory in the war on terrorism. But they were caught off-guard by this week's U.S. Supreme Court rulings that terrorist suspects held by the military, both foreign nationals and American, have the right to challenge their detention in the U.S. court system.

The Supreme Court rulings have been described by civil rights groups as a defeat for the Bush administration and its assertion of sweeping powers to indefinitely hold what it calls enemy combatants in the war on terror.

Since the decisions were handed down Monday, Pentagon officials have had little to say other than to tell reporters the rulings are being reviewed by defense department lawyers.

That is because the Pentagon was expecting an endorsement of administration policies and was caught off-guard by the unfavorable rulings, which defense officials now admit came as a complete surprise.

The officials' admissions are confirmed by an internal document, obtained by VOA, which outlined a communications strategy to be followed by Pentagon and other government spokesman in responding to the court. The document was written last week and was based on the assumption that key cases would be decided in favor of the Bush administration.

For example, in the cases brought by foreign-born Guantanamo detainees seeking access to U.S. courts, the planning document anticipated a close five-to-four decision but stated, quoting now, "we will treat any decision short of outright rejection as a victory."

In fact, the Supreme Court ruled six-to-three against the administration, declaring non-U.S. citizens held at the United States naval base at Guantanamo Bay can appeal to federal courts to argue that they are being unlawfully held.

In the case of U.S.-born terrorist suspect Yaser Hamdi, held at a military base in South Carolina, the administration's planning document also predicted a favorable decision in what was termed "a clear-cut Prisoner of War case."

As it turned out, the justices ruled eight-to-one that Mr. Hamdi should get an opportunity to rebut the government's case for detaining him before a neutral party. Four court members would have released him, arguing his detention was unlawful.

The communications planning document, prepared jointly by the Pentagon and the Justice Department, only once mentions the possibility of decisions unfavorable to the Bush administration.

In that case, it says the administration, as it put it, should "be prepared to have supporters outside the Departments of Defense and Justice carry the standard by engaging with the media to decry this miscarriage of justice."

In case of a positive decision, the document urged officials, quoting again, to "ensure maximum media coverage to overcome those who will continue to criticize the detention of enemy combatants.

So far, officials at both the Justice Department and the Pentagon, seeking to put the best possible face on the rulings, have only noted the high court affirmed the President's authority to detain enemy combatants in the war on terrorism.