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Bush Administration Suffers Legal Setbacks in War on Terrorism - 2003-12-18

The Bush administration suffered two legal setbacks in connection with the war on terrorism Thursday.

In the first ruling, a federal appeals court in New York said that the government did not have the right to hold American citizens on U.S. soil as what the Bush administration calls "enemy combatants."

The ruling came in the case of terror suspect Jose Padilla. He has been held at a military base in South Carolina since May of last year after he was arrested in connection with an alleged plot to detonate a so-called "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive device that disperses radioactive materials.

By a two-to-one margin, the three member appeals court said the president does not have the authority to declare U.S. citizens enemy combatants without authorization from the Congress.

"It is not like they [the appeals court] are saying that you simply release somebody and not have criminal charges," said Donna Newman, Jose Padilla's lawyer. "What they are saying is that the military cannot detain an American citizen unless Congress authorizes it."

Ms. Newman has not been able to meet with her client since his designation as an enemy combatant.

Bush administration officials insist it is within the president's power to designate terror suspects as enemy combatants, even if they are citizens arrested on U.S. soil.

"The president's most solemn obligation is protecting the American people," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "We believe the Second Circuit [appeals court] ruling is troubling and flawed. The president has directed the Justice Department to seek a stay [suspend the order] and further judicial review."

In a second ruling from San Francisco, another federal appeals court ruled for the first time that prisoners being held at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should be given access to lawyers and to the U.S. civil court system.

By a two-to-one decision, the appeals court said the Bush administration's indefinite detention of 660 men being held on suspicion of terrorism runs contrary to American ideals.

The judge who wrote the opinion said it was the responsibility of the judicial branch to prevent the executive branch from running "roughshod" over the rights of citizens and aliens alike.

The administration says it has the right to hold the men indefinitely and deny them access to lawyers because they were captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are being held outside the United States.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court said it will decide whether the detainees should have access to American courts. That decision is expected sometime before July of next year.