U.S. Officials Scramble to Find Options

With hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. officials are scrambling in light of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling to evaluate their options.
With hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. officials are scrambling in light of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling to evaluate their options. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)
By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

The Bush administration likely will have to extend rights to terrorism suspects at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that it has denied for years, after the Supreme Court invalidated the government's system of military trials and ruled that the detainees must be treated according to international standards, officials and experts said yesterday.

Senior administration officials acknowledged that the ruling scuttles their plans to put as many as 80 detainees through administration-created "military commissions" -- with extremely limited rights -- and said it is unclear how they will respond. The 5 to 3 ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld sent officials scrambling to evaluate options for the 450 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, some of whom have been held for more than four years without trial.

The choices, experts and government officials said yesterday, largely include putting suspects through time-tested military courts-martial, charging them in U.S. criminal courts or working with Congress to develop new rules to comply with the court's decision.

The administration could also ask foreign governments to try the more than 150 prisoners it considers hard-core terrorism suspects. The rest are likely to be returned to their home countries for further detention or release.

But if the United States decides it wants to hold the trials, detainees probably would gain more access to the evidence against them and the right to be present for much or all of the proceedings -- both of which were denied in some circumstances under the military commission rules, the experts and officials said.

The court did not rule on whether Guantanamo Bay should be closed, and its action does not affect operations at the facility. Military officials said yesterday that scheduled military commission hearings for 10 suspects have been suspended.

Retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, a professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy who visited Guantanamo Bay last week, said the military commissions were destined to fail. He said the government should have used courts-martial and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which grants defendants more rights.

"We put ourselves in an unnecessary legal mess from the beginning, and now we've gotten ourselves in such a mess legally and politically, there's no easy solution," McCaffrey said yesterday. "The UCMJ is the only way to go forward."

Senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday vowed to quickly develop legislation to govern military trials for terrorism suspects, announcing just hours after the court's ruling their intent to hold hearings and develop law by September. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to reintroduce legislation next month that would authorize military commissions.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he also plans legislation. "We are stronger as a nation when all three branches buy into the legal framework," he said.

Graham said it would be "chaos" to try such detainee cases in criminal courts, arguing that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks should be treated as acts of war and not crimes to be prosecuted in civilian courts.

Senior administration officials, requesting anonymity during a teleconference call with reporters, said they plan to work with Congress but are not ruling out anything.

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