ABA Debates Position on Enemy Combatants

The Bush administration has not justified jailing Americans as enemy combatants without charges or access to attorneys, a panel of the nation's largest lawyers' group said Friday.

The American Bar Association will decide later whether to take an official stand on the administration's use of the enemy combatant status for certain people arrested as part of the war on terrorism.

"We think it is something that ordinary people should definitely be concerned about," ABA President Robert Hirshon said.

The White House contends the jailings are necessary to protect national security. That position is being challenged in courts and on Capitol Hill.

An ABA task force said the White House should better explain its rationale and that Congress should set standards for the treatment of U.S. citizens held in America as enemy combatants.

"It cannot be sufficient for a president to claim that the executive (branch) can detain whomever it wants, for as long as it wants as long as the detention bears some relationship to a terrorist act once committed by somebody against the United States," the report said.

The group took only a mild stand on the government's holding of non-Americans as enemy combatants. About 600 people are in this category, in custody at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. They're being interrogated for information about terrorism.

The report recommended that Congress and Bush consider the international impact of the detentions. The U.S.-born prisoners are believed to be from three dozen countries, and many civil libertarians have said they should not be held in limbo without charges or the right to legal help.

The issue could come up next week when the ABA's governing board meets or it could be debated at a future meeting.

The names of the prisoners are not publicly released, and there are only a couple of known examples of U.S.-born suspects being held as enemy combatants.

In June, the Bush administration classified Jose Padilla as a combatant. Padilla, who is accused of plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in America, is in military custody in South Carolina.

The holding is being challenged, as is the jailing of Yasser Esam Hamdi, who was born in America and raised in Saudi Arabia. He had been held at Guantanamo Bay, until it was discovered he was born in Louisiana. He was transferred to the Norfolk Naval Station in April.

The ABA task force said that Americans deemed enemy combatants should not lose their constitutional rights.

"This is the first time in modern law that people have been detained incommunicado and perhaps for the rest of their lives without being allowed to talk to a lawyer and go into court," said Miami lawyer Neal R. Sonnett, chairman of the task force.

"It presents very troubling constitutional issues, statutory issues, even international issues," Sonnett said.