Questions linger on detainees who cannot be tried but are too dangerous to release
When President Obama declassified and released legal memoranda from the Department of Justice, he opened the door to a drawn-out battle over the Bush administration’s use of coercive interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists.
We believe that any subsequent attempts to subject those who provided such legal advice to prosecutions are a mistake. They will have a chilling effect on the candor with which future government officials provide their best counsel.
The country must move on from debates about the past, because pressing questions about U.S. detention policy in the war on terror requires us to make difficult choices – and to make them soon.
In January, the president announced via executive order that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will close within a year. The announcement was easy – but it left unanswered the hardest questions about detainee policy for the future.
How do we prosecute detainees suspected of committing war crimes now that military commissions have been suspended? How should we handle those detainees who cannot be tried, but who are too dangerous to release? Where will we house them?
How should we deal with detainees who, if released, would return to the fight against us? How do we deal with prisoners held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where some detainees captured outside Afghanistan are being held?
There are no easy answers. As senators who have struggled with these issues for years, we believe some basic principles can help us find a common path forward.
• First, do not confuse war with common criminality. The majority of detainees held at Guantanamo are not common criminals, but warriors fundamentally committed to the destruction of our way of life.
The appropriate legal foundation upon which detainee policy should be built is the law of war, along with procedures adapted from our military justice system.
• Second, military commissions remain the appropriate trial venue for these individuals. We would strenuously oppose any effort to try enemy combatants in our civilian courts.
By an overwhelming bipartisan vote in 2006, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which set forth procedures for trying enemy combatants for war crimes.
Our domestic criminal laws – including their treatment of classified information – are ill-suited for the complex national security issues inherent in the trial of enemy combatants. We have great faith in our military justice system – appropriately modified for war crimes trials – and we believe that military judges and lawyers render fair and impartial justice not only for our troops, but for enemy combatants as well.
• Third, preventive detention will continue to have a place in the war on terror. Under the law of war, the idea an enemy combatant has to be tried or released is a false choice. Rather, it is well-established that combatants can be held off the battlefield as long as they present a military threat.
While there is little doubt that we initially cast the net too broadly in determining who merited enemy combatant status, the Department of Defense estimates nearly 1 in 10 detainees released from Guantanamo have returned to the battlefield.
This includes Said Ali al-Shihri (second in command of al-Qaida in Yemen), and Abdullah Gulam Rasoul, who reportedly now serves as the Taliban’s operational commander in southern Afghanistan.
We cannot let this continue.
A significant group of detainees still in custody at Guantanamo may be too dangerous to release, but they are not suitable for war crimes trials.
In these cases, a system needs to be devised in which a designated national security court, with a uniform set of standards and procedures administered by a civilian judge, hears the petitions for habeas corpus authorized by the Supreme Court, and an annual interagency review is conducted to determine whether the detainee remains a security threat to the United States.
• Fourth, we must address the detainee situation at Bagram in Afghanistan. An improved system for reviewing the need for further detention of detainees is required at Bagram – but we must not lose sight that Afghanistan is still an active theater of war and we cannot impede the ability of our Armed Forces to fight the enemy.
We are encouraged that the Department of Justice has appealed a ruling by the D.C. district court that extended habeas corpus rights to detainees held on the battlefield in Afghanistan.
In its motion, the Department of Justice argued that allowing the ruling to stand would harm our military’s ability to win the war.
• Finally, Congress must be involved in crafting detainee policy. It is critical for all branches of government to work together to develop solutions to the complex legal problems presented by this war.
We believe that the time has come to focus on these urgent issues, rather than spend the nation’s energy on the debates of the past.
We stand ready to work with President Obama to develop an enemy-combatant detention process that is transparent, provides robust due process consistent with the law of war, involves an independent judiciary, and protects us against a dangerous enemy.
The American people and the international community will see such a system not as an arbitrary exercise of power, but as an intelligent balance of due process and national security.”
John McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. Lindsey Graham is a Republican senator from South Carolina.
By John McCain, Lindsey Graham