Democrats in the U.S. Congress are stepping up their criticism of President Bush's decision to possibly use military tribunals to try non-Americans suspected of terrorism. But administration officials insist the tribunals may be a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are worried that using military tribunals to try non-citizens accused of being terrorists would undermine international faith in the U.S. civilian justice system.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is the committee chairman and one of the Bush Administration's most persistent critics on civil-liberties issues. "What does it really gain us in the fight against terrorism," he asked? "Would military commissions, however expedient, genuinely serve our national interests in the long term? As we examine the wisdom of the military order as written, we should consider whether this could become a template for use by foreign governments against Americans overseas."
Other opponents say use of the tribunals would leave the United States open to the same type of criticism that U.S. officials have directed at other countries in recent years.
Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said, "We have stated that military courts in Egypt do not even ensure civilian defendants due process for an independent tribunal. We have stated that military tribunals in Sudan do not provide procedural safeguards. We have criticized Burma, China, Colombia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, and Turkey on similar grounds. Yet now we are calling for the use of military tribunals. The concern is, are we doing exactly what we have criticized other nations for doing?"
Democrats are also upset with the administration because they feel the president acted on the issue without consulting members of Congress.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff defended the president's decision to authorize the possible use of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.
Mr. Chertoff says the administration is justified in being what he called "aggressive and hard-nosed" in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans. "If we are in the battlefield, if there is somebody caught in Afghanistan, the president should have the option not to bring that terrorist back to the United States and put them in a Federal Court in New York or in Washington and subject those cities to the danger of having that trial. He should have the option to have those people tried in the field for violations of the law of war."
Military tribunals have more flexible rules of evidence than civilian courts. For example, hearsay and secret evidence is admissible. A two-thirds vote by a panel of military officers is sufficient to convict suspected terrorists, convictions that could carry the death penalty. Appeals are generally not permitted.
Republicans on the committee generally supported the administration's view. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah says he believes Americans overwhelmingly support the president's campaign against terrorism, both at home and abroad. "Indeed," he said, "most Americans worry that we are not doing enough to thwart potential terrorist attacks, not that we are doing too much. We might be better served if next week's [Senate] hearing with the attorney general focused on whether we have done all we can to address the threat of terrorism and to help our president obtain all the tools he needs to fight Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida organization."
Assistant Attorney General Chertoff also defended the detention of hundreds of non-citizens in the wake of the September 11 attacks. He said the roundup was necessary to combat so-called sleeper cells of terrorists waiting quietly to strike at American targets.
Tuesday, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that about 600 people are being held by authorities, most of them on immigration violations.