Chance for Reform

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS have been promising since last November's election to reform President Bush's treatment of foreign prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison. There are practical limits to what can be done while this president remains in office; eye-catching bills to shut down Guantanamo, for example, are unlikely to be enacted. But today Democrats in the House have an opportunity to take an important first step toward the reform that may be most achievable -- the restoration of the ancient right of habeas corpus to the Guantanamo detainees. Unfortunately, their leaders seem to have decided to pass up the opportunity.

The chance comes in a markup by the House Armed Services Committee of the annual defense authorization bill. Democrats on the committee and lobbyists for human rights groups say they have gathered enough votes to add an amendment to the legislation that would reverse Congress's decision last year to strip detainees of the habeas right. That would allow the prisoners to renew lawsuits in federal courts challenging their detention. Over the past several years those legal actions have directly or indirectly brought about most of the reforms the administration has adopted in its detention policy. Ultimately they could compel the release of some of the more than 300 prisoners who are being held without charge or the prospect of a trial; at the least, the administration would have to justify continued detention to an independent judge.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) says he favors the reform. At a hearing on Guantanamo last month he said he thought Congress acted unconstitutionally in denying prisoners habeas. But Mr. Skelton didn't include the amendment in the draft bill he circulated to his committee. His staff says he concluded that the measure should be contained in a stand-alone piece of legislation, which he is said to be preparing. That strategy is at odds both with recent legislative history and with the judgment of most congressional observers: Mr. Bush, they point out, won't hesitate to veto a bill on habeas corpus but might be induced to accept the reform if it were attached to one of the annual defense bills. That is how Congress managed to force the reform of prisoner treatment known as the McCain amendment two years ago.

Other congressional sources cite another reason Mr. Skelton is holding back: He and other Democratic leaders do not want to risk complicating the passage of the defense bill on the House floor. Worries about such political scrapes didn't stop those leaders from passing a defense spending bill last month containing a polarizing attempt to micromanage troops in Iraq. Nor have House Democrats hesitated to pick fights with the administration over such issues as whether the hiring and firing of U.S. attorneys was properly managed, or whether Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice can be compelled to testify about their actions as presidential advisers. Why not fight for the right of habeas corpus? Maybe because it's not really a priority for the Democrats, after all.

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