By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2005
The Senate endorsed a plan yesterday that would sharply limit suspected foreign terrorists' access to U.S. courts, an effort to overturn a landmark 2004 Supreme Court ruling that has allowed hundreds of detainees held by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to challenge their detentions.
At the same time, the proposal would give Congress some oversight of the military process set up to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees are terrorists and should continue to be held. The measure would subject those tribunal decisions to limited review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Approval of the plan, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and endorsed 49 to 42 mostly along party lines, marks a partial but significant victory for the Bush administration, which has argued that suspected enemy combatants overseas cannot challenge their confinement in U.S. courts.
But the administration has also argued that all matters related to the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists should be left to President Bush.
The amendment to a defense authorization bill was endorsed three days after the Supreme Court announced it would rule on the legality of military commissions to try Guantanamo Bay detainees, setting up what could be one of the most important rulings on presidential war powers since World War II. The vote also came amid ongoing debate in Congress over a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ban cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment of U.S. detainees.
Graham said in an interview last night that the proposal is aimed at forging a compromise between the administration and civil liberties advocates who have been fiercely critical of the government's detention policies, and to stem the tide of lawsuits filed by Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"We've got a chance here, if we work together, to bring clarity to confusion, to create a legal process that we as Americans can be proud of and to make sure we're not losing ground in the war on terrorism by losing good intelligence," Graham said.
The White House last night signaled support for the plan. But civil liberties groups called it a step backward and complained it had not received meaningful debate.
The United States would "be free to hold people indefinitely without a hearing and beyond the reach of U.S. law and checks and balances," said a statement by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has helped many detainees challenge their confinement and treatment in court.
Opponents of the plan will have a chance to amend it before it comes up for a final vote as early as next week.
About 260 of the more than 750 prisoners currently or previously held at Guantanamo Bay have filed habeas corpus petitions in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. They have alleged various kinds of abuse, wrongful detention and inadequate medical care, among other complaints.
Four Democrats voted in favor: Kent Conrad (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joseph I Lieberman (Conn.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Four Republicans were opposed : Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).
Staff writers Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.