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US Senators Propose Law on Foreign Terror Suspects

U.S. Senate

Thorny questions have long surrounded America’s treatment of accused foreign combatants captured in the war on terror. Where should they be held and for how long? How should they be brought to justice? What rights do they have while in U.S. custody? Where should they go upon release? What should the United States do with detainees it cannot convict, but who might pose a threat to national security? And do global perceptions about America’s treatment of detainees help or hurt international cooperation in the war on terror?

Several senators expressed strong views on these matters at a news conference.

"Guantanamo Bay must be kept open. [Accused 2001 terror attack mastermind] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will never see a civilian court if we have anything to do about it," South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said. "Justice is for him to go before a military commission made up of men and women who judge our own troops, and answer for his crimes."

The proposed bill - the Military Detainee Procedures Improvement Act - would authorize U.S. presidents to detain suspected terrorists. It would mandate military custody of detainees unless the secretary of defense certifies that civilian control is preferable. And it would guard against transferring detainees to nations that cannot monitor them or where previously-transferred detainees have been set free.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona:

"A statute-based, standardized system is in our national security interest and will provide greater safety for our citizens and a reduced number of former detainees returning to the fight," McCain said.

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order that provides for indefinite detention of detainees and announced the resumption of military trials. The proposed legislation would apply to those already at Guantanamo Bay as well as future detainees.

Obama administration efforts to try enemy combatants in U.S. civilian courts appear to have ground to a halt amid strong criticism from Congress. Proponents of civilian trials argue that accused terrorists are criminals, not prisoners of war.

That argument does not sway Independent Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

"Since America was attacked by al-Qaida on September 11, 2001, we have been a nation at war with al-Qaida and associated Islamist terrorist groups. To me, that means we should hold people we capture in this war according to the laws of war," said Lieberman.

Fewer than 200 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, down from some 600 in 2002.

President Obama came to office promising to close the detention camp in a year’s time. More than two years later, the facility remains open for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether the proposed legislation becomes law.