With Liberty and Justice for All

The Bush administration recently admitted that only eight percent of approximately 500 prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Prison, Cuba are linked to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, they are being held under conditions that the Red Cross has called “a system of cruel, unusual, and degrading treatment, and a form of torture.” These prisoners have little chance of freedom, even those judged not to pose a threat to American security. Only five percent of the detainees were taken prisoner by U.S. forces; 86% were handed over by Pakistani or Afghan warlords in exchange for large cash bounties. These bounties amount to far more than the average soldier’s wages and represent a large incentive to falsify captures. The relationship between these unfortunate men and international terrorism has never been documented, if it indeed exists. Even the military leaders in charge of Guantanamo have acknowledged, “sometimes we [don’t] get the right folks.” This kind of mistake ruins lives. The Bush administration has made it difficult, if not impossible, for these foreign citizens to contact lawyers, reporters, or even family members. They are stuck in what Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan called “the gulag of our times.” However, the issue at stake here is more than just that of mistreated prisoners or inhumane conditions in military camps: the Bush administration’s position in this case threatens the system of checks and balances on which our nation’s stability depends. Under the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act passed by Congress, Federal Courts (except the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia) are prohibited from evaluating writs of habeas corpus on behalf of these detainees. Under the 1976 Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war, “nobody in enemy hands can fall outside the law,” yet according to the Red Cross, these men are being denied their due process. The Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy and fair public trial” has fallen by the wayside, replaced by a system of secret military tribunals and indefinite release dates. Only ten of the detainees have been designated for trial; and none of these cases have yet been decided. The rest are stuck in legal limbo, unable to seek assistance from federal courts, and left behind by the military commissions. Four months ago, the Supreme Court ruled that it would decide the validity of the military commissions in a case involving Osama Bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan. In proceedings that began this week, Hamdan has argued that President Bush never had the authority to create military tribunals, despite his powers as commander-in-chief, and that the Detainee Treatment Act illegally stripped the Supreme Court of its obligation to decide this case. The government’s rebuttal is twofold: first, that the law applies retroactively to cases which had already been brought before it was signed, and that, in the interest of national security, the president can do anything he wants. While the high court has already ruled that these prisoners have the right to appeal, a new bill in the Senate would nullify the prisoners’ right to do so in the federal court system and the Supreme Court’s ability to hear these cases. While the CIA’s secret prisons overseas have garnered media attention, relatively few Americans are concerned with the actions of President Bush and Congress. The secret prisons establish a disturbing precedent, and shift the delicate balance of power within the federal government. The Republicans have used national security as an excuse to violate historical precedent and sidestep the separation of powers envisioned by the founding fathers. What does this physical and legal mistreatment of human beings say about the U.S. to the international community? When the government decides to take away a cornerstone of our constitutional freedoms, are we really better off?