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Congress Makes Mixed Moves on ‘Terror Warâ€TM Oversight, Accountabilit

by Brendan Coyne

Senate and House measures concerning Guantanamo Bay detainees' court access and the controversy over recently exposed secret CIA prisons show the 'war on terror' is not a cut-and-dry affair for lawmakers.

Nov. 14, 2005 – In a series of votes and political moves last week, the US Congress headed in various directions on specific legislative aspects of the so-called "war on terror." While the Senate sought to hold the CIA accountable for its secret prison system, it also took a step toward cutting off detainees’ access to US courts. Meanwhile in the House, the focus was on suppressing exposure of such secret operations altogether.

Chambers Respond Differently to Secret-prison Leak

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In a departure from actions sought by its colleagues in the House, the Senate last week overwhelmingly approved a measure demanding that the Bush administration provide information on the secret network of overseas prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency. The Senate move came the same day as an announcement by Republican House leaders that they would conduct an investigation only into how the classified information found its way into the Washington Post.

Voting 82-9 Thursday, the Senate approved a bill that would require the administration to provide a classified briefing on the prisons to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The measure will be attached to a larger package

That vote came about as the Committee’s counterpart in the House indicated that it would open an inquiry into the source and cause of the information that was leaked to the Post.

According to the Associated Press, the House Intelligence Committee will investigate several intelligence leaks, which, according to Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan), "have done irreparable harm to our ability to effectively conduct the war on terror."

Two weeks ago, the Post reported that it had confirmed the existence of several secret CIA-run prisons outside US borders, including unnamed sites in Eastern Europe. The AP and other media outlets confirmed the reports, though many declined to provide the locations at the request of government officials.

Human rights groups widely and immediately condemned the prisons. In a statement last week, Amnesty International called the prisons’ existence "outrageous" and said the United States must address the claims of three Yemeni men who said they were disappeared into a complex web of clandestine incarceration with the assent of the Yemen government.

"It is absolutely outrageous that the Bush administration – the self-described defender of democratic values around the world – holds and tortures people in secret facilities or outsources torture, without charge, trial or access to the outside world," Amnesty International USA Executive Director William F. Schulz said in a statement accompanying the release of the organization’s report on the three men.

"This is a blatant violation of US obligations under international law," Schulz continued. "We cannot ignore the evidence. These detention centers – coupled with torture, indefinite detention and the ‘disappearing’ of people in custody – provide additional impetus for Congress to create an independent commission to investigate all aspects of US detention and interrogation policies."

Human Rights Watch, which maintains that it has collected information showing that both Poland and Romania hosted the CIA "black sites," is calling on domestic and international bodies to force the Bush administration to come clean over the issue. In a statement released after the Post story, HRW said it knows of "23 high-level suspects being held secretly by US personnel at undisclosed locations."

Senate Sidesteps Courts on Due Process for Detainees

In legislation now combined with the oversight bill, the Senate was more closely divided last week when it looked to thwart a year-old Supreme Court order by passing a measure barring detainees in the "war on terror" from challenging their detention in the US court system. The amendment passed 49-42 Thursday, after little more than an hour of debate, with a handful of Democrats breaking ranks to favor the measure.

Introduced by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), the provision would make it impossible for individuals labeled "enemy combatants" to access federal courts, instead leaving their fate to military tribunals by permanently removing due-process protections from the prisoners. Based on the long-honored legal concept of habeas corpus, the protections aimed to afford defendants an opportunity to challenge the grounds and means of their internment through a judicial review of the case.

Supporters of the measure, which included five Democrats, say the United States must use extraordinary measures to deal with the new threats of terrorism the world faces. In offering reasoning for the law, Graham said it is necessary to prevent the court system from being bogged down in legal challenges while US troops fight terrorists overseas, the New York Times reported.

Last year, the Supreme Court found that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had a right to federal court review of their cases, a decision that has yet to be implemented and, if the Graham amendment is approved by the joint Senate-House conference, would be essentially nullified. Civil liberties and humanitarian groups have assailed US attempts to limit suspected terrorists rights for years.

In a statement preceding the Senate vote, the American Civil Liberties Union warned "Guantanamo Bay is not a black hole: The government shouldn’t be able to round people up, toss them in there for years without charging them, and then slam shut the courthouse doors."

The Graham amendment came before the Senate apart from the usual committee process and despite opposition from current and former military officials and human rights groups, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) noted. Lawyers with CCR represent a number of Guantanamo detainees.

Vowing to fight the measure, CCR said: "The Graham Amendment will only serve to reinforce the growing perception in the world that the United States has become an enemy of human rights."

"The Supreme Court has already rejected the government’s claim that Guantanamo Bay is a legal no-man’s land," the ACLU added. "Congress won’t be able to clean up the mess in Guantanamo Bay until it restores the Constitution and the rule of law to everyone held by the federal government."

The House has yet to consider the bill and has no companion measure, but it may approve it anyway during joint conferences between the chambers.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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