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It's Bush's Way or the Highway on Guantanamo Bay

Senate Judiciary Committee members, from left, Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy are frozen in concentration  --  and the same pose  --  during a hearing on the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody.
Senate Judiciary Committee members, from left, Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy are frozen in concentration -- and the same pose -- during a hearing on the treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

As Congress opened hearings yesterday on the treatment of terrorism detainees, the Bush administration's view was neatly summarized by Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department lawyer serving as lead witness. "The president," Bradbury said, "is always right."

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court rebuked the administration by rejecting military tribunals for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and forcing President Bush to get approval from Congress. But the officials who came before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday -- Bradbury and Pentagon lawyer Daniel Dell'Orto -- were unrepentant.

"Surprising and disappointing . . . without historical analogue" was Bradbury's view of the high court's ruling on the Hamdan case.

Rather than regard it as a defeat, Bradbury said it presents Bush with an "opportunity to work together" with Congress.

The ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy (Vt.), fished for any admission that the administration's legal view had been wrong. Bradbury retorted: "It was completely reasonable."

When Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested a framework for future tribunals, Dell'Orto cut him down. "I have many concerns about taking that approach," he said.

The witnesses were even dismissive of the new Pentagon memo applying the Geneva Conventions to all detainees for the first time. "It doesn't indicate a shift in policy," Dell'Orto said.

And in a veiled warning, Bradbury told Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) that Bush still didn't need Congress. "The court did leave open the theoretical possibility that the president could come back on his own," he said.

It was an aggressive performance for an administration that wants Congress to create a new legal system to deal with the 1,000 terrorism suspects in custody. But administration officials are confident that the legislative branch will do the White House's bidding -- in part because lawmakers who oppose Bush's wishes can be accused of coddling terrorists.

At the center of this calculation is Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who introduced legislation on the subject and called the hearing almost immediately after the Hamdan decision. "The Constitution is explicit," he declared at the start of the hearing, "that the Congress has the authority, responsibility to establish the rules of trials on capture on land or sea."

But Specter, while known for such tough talk, has been repeatedly thwarted by the administration or Republican congressional leaders on wiretapping, immigration, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The administration lawyers didn't show much fear of Specter yesterday, either, when the chairman asked them to provide thoughts on his legislation within two weeks.

"Only the president has the decision to introduce legislation," Bradbury reminded Specter. "I cannot commit as I sit here now that the administration will submit a particular bill."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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