WASHINGTON – The Bush administration must regroup legally and politically after the Supreme Court (search) dealt a major setback to the government's anti-terrorism tactics since the Sept. 11 (search), 2001 attacks.
The high court refused to endorse the White House claim of authority to seize and detain terrorism suspects and indefinitely deny access to courts or lawyers while interrogating them.
Monday's rulings in a trio of cases dealing with the rights of prisoners mean that detainees, whether potential terrorist threats or victims of circumstance, have greater rights to challenge their captivity in U.S. courts and force the government to explain itself.
"We are reviewing the court's decision to determine how to modify existing processes to satisfy the court's rulings," Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said.
At the White House, spokeswoman Claire Buchan praised the part of the ruling that upheld government power to detain enemy combatants.
"We're committed to fashioning a process that addresses both the court's concerns and that permits the president to continue to exercise his constitutional responsibilities as commander in chief to protect the nation in times of war," she said.
In the short term, administration lawyers must prepare to fight scores of new court challenges filed on behalf of hundreds of detainees held more than two years at the Navy's prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (search), Cuba.
The administration lost its high court argument that those detainees could not take their complaints to U.S. courts, because they are foreigners held on foreign soil. A 6-3 majority said the men may sue.
"The lesson of the decision is that there is no prison beyond the reach of domestic law," said Joe Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer who was lead counsel in the Supreme Court case on behalf of two Australian detainees and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
A number of questions remain about how cases will proceed and how the military will respond to lawyers' requests to meet with detainees. So far only four have been allowed to meet attorneys, and only three prisoners have been charged.
"Whatever we're told to do we'll do," said Army Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter, a spokesman at Guantanamo. "We'll definitely get guidance on how to implement that."
Soon, the administration will also return to federal courtrooms for new arguments in the cases of two American-born terror suspects whose cases challenged the premise that the war on terrorism required a new view of civil liberties.
The high court ruled 6-3 that Louisiana-born detainee Yaser Esam Hamdi can continue to argue for his freedom in court, repudiating administration arguments that presidential say-so was enough to keep Hamdi locked up without charges or trial.
"A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote.
The court declined to rule on the merits of a third case arising from the hunt for terrorists. The court sent back to a lower court the case of Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member and convert to Islam being held as an enemy combatant amid allegations he sought to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb" and blow up apartment buildings in the United States.
The Bush administration contends that all the men at issue in Monday's cases are enemy combatants, an indistinct legal term. The administration claimed enemy combatants are neither prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions nor ordinary criminal suspects with automatic rights to see a lawyer and know the charges against them.
The Hamdi case included multiple holdings, and some unusual alliances among conservative and liberal justices.
Eight justices rejected the Bush administration's treatment of Hamdi on some grounds. Only Justice Clarence Thomas, by many measures the court's staunchest conservative, found no fault with the government.
In one bright spot for the government, a majority of five justices held that the president had authority to hold Hamdi as an enemy combatant.
Hamdi was born in Louisiana in 1980, while his Saudi father worked in the oil industry there. He grew up in Saudi Arabia. Hamdi's family says he is innocent -- a 20-year-old relief worker swept up in the chaos of Afghanistan in the weeks following the terrorist attack.
The Bush administration says he was fighting with a Taliban unit and carrying a gun.
Hamdi was initially shipped to Guantanamo with other so-called battlefield detainees but transferred to a Navy brig in South Carolina after authorities verified his citizenship.
Padilla, also being held at the brig, was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as he got off a flight from Pakistan in 2002, allegedly with plans to carry out terror attacks in America.
Both men have been held more than two years and interrogated repeatedly. Until recently they were not allowed to meet with their lawyers.
The Padilla case ended Monday with what is at best an incremental victory for the government. Led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the court voted 5-4 to throw out the lower court ruling on a technicality. The court's more liberal wing dissented.
Padilla may now refile his case and challenge the government on stronger legal footing, although several lawyers said the government may choose to file criminal charges instead.
The cases are Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 03-6696; Rasul v. Bush, 03-334 and Rumsfeld v. Padilla, 03-1027.