WASHINGTON – Siding with the White House, top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday they favor writing into law the special military trials for suspected terrorists that the Supreme Court rejected.
Bush administration officials urged Congress to pass legislation that would authorize President Bush's plan to try detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in military tribunals. The high court last month said that system violated U.S. and international law.
Democrats and some moderate Republicans believe military courts-martial have more credibility, setting up a potential showdown this fall in Congress when GOP lawmakers hope to pass detainee legislation.
"Obviously, parts of it will no longer apply in light of our commitment to comply with the court's decision," said a White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino.
At the House hearing, a senior Pentagon official appealed for congressional approval of the military tribunals, known as commissions.
Daniel Dell'Orto, principal deputy general counsel at the Defense Department, said court-martials would expose classified information, hinder interrogations and require granting other rights to suspected terrorists.
Using the system effectively would mean "gutting" military law to avoid those dangers, he said.
"That's just overwhelming and we're not going to do it," said one committee member, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. He said he supports authorizing the military commissions and wants to "refine it any way we need to."
The committee chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter, said relying on the court-martial system could force the release of suspected terrorists and put them back on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We won't lower our standards. We will always treat detainees humanely but we also cannot be naive, either," said Hunter, R-Calif.
Democrats took issue with Dell'Orto's testimony, branding it a "red herring" and contending that only minor changes to the courts-martial system were necessary.
"There's not a single member of this Congress that believes that Miranda warnings should be given to terrorists," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a retired judge who served on North Carolina's Supreme Court. The Miranda warnings require police to tell suspects they have the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney.
GOP moderates, Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they are open to using the court-martial system as a starting point to build a court system to prosecute detainees.
"I believe we can work out ... a framework that does not have all the guarantees of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) and still complies" with the Supreme Court decision, McCain said.
Like Hunter, these senators have not said exactly what they have in mind, giving the administration time to offer its proposal.
But McCain and other GOP moderates have said the Pentagon's handling of detainees needs closer scrutiny by Congress — a suggestion Hunter has protested.
Hunter, along with many House Republicans, sided against Warner, McCain and Graham last year when they proposed banning the mistreatment of detainees and giving suspected terrorists protections under the Geneva Conventions.
Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, planned a hearing Thursday on the legal rights of detainees.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters Wednesday that the detainee issue may come up during Bush's meeting Thursday in Germany with Chancellor Angela Merkel.