By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 1, 2006
Republicans yesterday looked to wrest a political victory from a legal defeat in the Supreme Court, serving notice to Democrats that they must back President Bush on how to try suspects at Guantanamo Bay or risk being branded as weak on terrorism.
In striking down the military commissions Bush sought for trials of suspected members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the high court Thursday invited Congress to establish new rules and put the issue prominently before the public four months before the midterm elections. As the White House and lawmakers weighed next steps, House GOP leaders signaled they are ready to use this week's turn of events as a political weapon.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's comment Thursday that the court decision "affirms the American ideal that all are entitled to the basic guarantees of our justice system." That statement, Boehner said, amounted to Pelosi's advocating "special privileges for terrorists."
Similar views ricocheted around conservative talk radio -- Rush Limbaugh called Pelosi's comments "deranged" on his show Thursday -- and Republican strategists said they believed that the decision presented Bush a chance to put Democrats on the spot while uniting a Republican coalition that lately has been splintered on immigration, spending and other issues.
"It would be good politics to have a debate about this if Democrats are going to argue for additional rights for terrorists," said Terry Nelson, a prominent GOP political strategist who was political director for Bush's reelection campaign in 2004.
Mindful of this thinking, Democrats were measured in their comments about how to respond to the ruling, which held that Bush's policy was not authorized by law and violated the Geneva Conventions.
Brendan Daly, Pelosi's spokesman, said Democrats "want to work with" the administration in fashioning new rules for terrorism suspects, and he dismissed Boehner's comments as a sign of desperation. "[Bush] is not a king -- he has to follow the law," Daly said. "That's all we're saying."
Democrats seemed to gain some support from a few Senate Republicans, who said politics should not dictate how Congress responds to the Supreme Court. "This should not be a party fight," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "I'm a proud Republican senator, but my nation needs both parties working in collaboration with the executive branch to solve the military commission problem, and both parties will be rewarded by the public if we're seen as working for the common good."
The issue is not without complexity for Republicans. A Washington Post-ABC poll this week suggested that while Americans continue to favor holding suspects at the U.S. military installation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, they are leery of an administration policy that has resulted in almost all of the 450 detainees being held without charges. Of those polled, 71 percent said the detainees should be either given POW status or charged with a crime.
In many respects, the Guantanamo Bay facility has become an albatross for the Bush administration since its creation in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a prison for terrorism suspects picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Bush signed an executive order in November 2001 establishing military commissions to try the inmates, but the process has been in a legal limbo and no suspect has gone through a full trial.
Meanwhile, the United States has attracted intense international criticism for holding the detainees in limbo, and Bush has said repeatedly that he wants to close the prison.
Some lawmakers want Congress to endorse a plan to have the commissions operate by the rules of a regular court-martial, which would give the detainees more rights than they would have under the current commission structure. But administration lawyers have been concerned that it would be difficult to win convictions under that scenario, in large measure because the standard of proof would be higher.
White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said the administration is reviewing how to respond to the court.
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is still being debated internally, seemed to hint at the potential political implications in Congress. "Members of both parties will have to decide whether terrorists who cherish the killing of innocents deserve the same protections as our men and women who wear the uniform," this official said.
The House and Senate Armed Services committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee have called for hearings as soon as Congress returns from the week-long Fourth of July break.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday outlined his plan to conduct military tribunals in a manner consistent with the court's decision.
Under the Specter bill, a three-judge panel of military lawyers would preside. Defendants would be present in court with their lawyers, who would be granted the right to gather evidence, cross-examine witnesses and review classified information after it had been reviewed by a judge. Defendants would be granted the right to appeal verdicts to a court of military appeals and, ultimately, the Supreme Court.
"I would suggest that the rhetoric be cooled at least long enough for people to read the opinion," Specter said of the Supreme Court decision. "We're going to have to dot all the i's and cross all the t's on this legislation to make sure it passes muster."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), a key figure on detainee policy, noted that the court pointedly ruled that military tribunals had to comport with the Geneva Conventions, so any effort to simply grant Bush the power he wants would not pass the scrutiny of the court. If Republicans ignore the court's prescription, military lawyers would be quick to speak out, granting Democrats political cover, he predicted.
"That kind of excess, I think, backfires," Levin said of the House Republican broadsides. "The American public has too much common sense to put much stock in that kind of diatribe. Americans respect the Supreme Court."
But some GOP allies said they suspect that the decision will help energize a Republican base that has been angry at some Bush policies. Tom Liddy, a conservative talk show host in Phoenix, said that the decision has been a big topic on his show and that it could be another terrorism issue that works to the GOP's advantage.
Liddy noted that House Republicans pushed through a resolution Thursday, over Democratic objections, criticizing the news media for publishing classified information about a secret anti-terrorism program that monitors bank transactions.
"It will be worse for the Democrats to be seen as favoring the terrorists than favoring the New York Times," Liddy said.