WASHINGTON – While the White House considered closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, Congress is pushing ahead with a heated debate over whether detained terror suspects should be entitled to petition U.S. courts to challenge their confinement.
A House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee called in five witnesses for conflicting advice and itself divided on the hotly debated issues.
Setting the tone, the subcommittee chairman, Democrat Jerrold Nadler, accused the Bush administration of tyranny and President Bush of disrespect for the rule of law in not permitting the 375 or so detainees at the prison to resort to U.S. courts to challenge their treatment as "cruel, inhuman and degrading."
Nadler said Bush was asserting an unprecedented power to detain anyone who is not a U.S. citizen.
Rep. Melvin L. Watt, another Democrat, denounced the Republican president as "a president who has assumed dictatorial power."
On the Republican side, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, the party's senior member on the panel, called the detainees at Guantanamo "unlawful combatants." He said, "What makes them that is their willingness to slaughter innocent civilians."
While "we're focused on giving them more due process," he said, "the jihadist ideology is one of the most dangerous ideologies America has faced."
"Terrorists are not just common criminals," he said. "They are terrorists" and they are prepared to "cut off someone's head with a hacksaw."
The split among the witnesses was less charged but no less real.
Former White House lawyer Bradford A. Berenson said terrorists were "enemies of all mankind," and no nation had granted them the rights being debated.
"The international law of armed conflict has never been interpreted to require that alien enemies held outside the territory of the detaining power be granted access to its domestic court system to challenge their detentions," he said.
By contrast, Jonathan Hafetz, of the Brennan Center for Justice, said many of the detainees were seized far from any battlefield and some of them were turned over to the United States on the say-so of bounty hunters for a promised reward.
Most Guantanamo detainees are not the hard-core terrorists the administration insisted they are, he said. He quoted an unidentified former Guantanamo commander as saying, "Sometimes we just didn't get the right folks."
The Supreme Court in April would not consider whether Guantanamo detainees could go to federal court to challenge their indefinite confinement.
But several detainees are asking the high court to reconsider.
The House Judiciary Committee's Democratic chairman, Rep. John Conyers, said the Supreme Court probably will extend rights to the detainees, so Congress may as well act first.
Meanwhile, the White House is considering closing Guantanamo and transferring some of the people it considers the most dangerous suspects to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and a Navy brig in South Carolina.
A survey by CNN-Opinion Research Corp. showed the American public was about evenly split on whether the Guantanamo base should be closed.
The poll showed 46 percent favored continued operation of the facility, while 45 percent said it should be closed and the detainees moved elsewhere.
The poll involved telephone interviews with 1,029 adults. It was conducted June 22-24. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.