In the court's first case arising from the war on terrorism (search), the Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear an appeal asking whether foreigners held at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may contest their captivity in U.S. courts.
"The United States has created a prison on Guantanamo Bay that operates entirely outside the law," lawyers for four British and Australian detainees argued in asking the high court to consider the case.
The case is centered around the more than 650 prisoners held essentially incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay (search). The Bush administration maintains that because the men were picked up overseas on suspicion of terrorism and are being held on foreign land they may be detained indefinitely without charges or trial.
The men, mostly Muslims, have no access to lawyers or other outsiders, and do not even know they are the subject of the case the court agreed to hear, according to lawyers who have taken up their cause. Some among them may eventually be tried before military tribunals, but the administration has not said when. How the court rules could affect those plans.
The detentions are part of a global campaign against terrorism that has outraged civil liberties groups and left some U.S. allies grumbling. The administration has gained expanded powers to investigate and detain people suspected of terrorist links, has reorganized the way the government defends U.S. borders and has increased security at airports and other ports of entry.
The Supreme Court passed up several earlier opportunities to hear terrorism cases.
In the Guantanamo case, the justices limited their review to the narrow but significant question of access to U.S. courts. The case concerns only Guantanamo detainees, most of whom were picked up during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, although the United States holds prisoners in numerous other places overseas.
Lawyers for the Guantanamo detainees had raised broad civil liberties objections to their detention and treatment, but the high court declined to look at those issues. The men could presumably renew those challenges if they win this case.
Several U.S. allies have complained about the open-ended detentions, and at least 40 prisoners have been returned to their home countries. Last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the mental health of a large number of inmates was deteriorating.
Civil liberties lawyers were rebuffed as they tried to challenge the detentions and interrogations on the men's behalf. Lower courts found that the American civilian court system had no authority to hear complaints from the alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban foot soldiers.
The four British and Australian detainees were seized in Pakistan and Afghanistan and have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, other terrorist organizations or with the events of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights told the high court.
The justices also will hear a similar challenge concerning 12 Kuwaiti men seized in Pakistan and Afghanistan and shipped to Guantanamo in early 2002, their lawyers said. The Kuwaitis are not terrorists and have never participated in any hostile act against the United States, their lawyers said.
The court combined the two appeals and will hear them together early next year. A ruling is expected by July.
"We believe that the law is on our side," White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) said Monday. "We've always said with the detainees that they are being treated consistently with international law and we believe that we're right in this."
Rice spoke in an interview with Fox affiliate WAGA in Atlanta.
On the other side, the Center for Constitutional Rights said Monday, "In essence, the court must now decide whether the United States will reaffirm or reject its commitment to the rule of law."
Separately, the court refused to hear an appeal from an Islamic charity whose assets were impounded three months after the terrorist attacks. The Illinois-based Global Relief Foundation argued that the government put it out of business without proof it was funneling money to terrorists.
The Bush administration had urged the Supreme Court not to get involved in either case.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court that the Guantanamo detentions serve "vital objectives of preventing combatants from continuing to aid our enemies and gathering intelligence to further the overall war effort."
Olson, whose wife was killed aboard the hijacked jet that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, told the court that a lower federal appeals court properly rejected the Guantanamo appeals.
The Guantanamo base was seized by the United States in the Spanish-American War and has been leased from Cuba for the past century.
The cases are Rasul v. Bush, 03-334 and Al Odah v. United States, 03-343.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.