One of the primary criticisms of trying terrorists by military commission is the slippery slope which exists in a system not founded on sound legal principles. Proponents of military commissions have argued we needed this separate system to address unique issues involved with trying suspected enemy terrorists, and by creating a separate system we prevent the individual rights protections that apply in Article III prosecutions from being diluted. This is because military commissions are limited to trying non-U.S. citizen “unprivileged belligerents.”
One of the key flaws of this argument is that the Military Commission Act’s limitation on trying only non-U.S. citizens by military commission was not based on any clear legal principle, and nothing would prevent the jurisdiction of these commissions from expanding in the future. Over the past several weeks, the Senate Armed Services Committee has been toying with an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which will push us down this slope.
Among other things, the proposed amendments create a presumption of military detention in certain cases, even when the detainee is a U.S. citizen. And, of course, because the military is not in the business of operating prisons throughout the country, the most likely place for that detention would be Guantanamo. These proposed amendments, coupled with already existing legislation, could result in a suspect—even a U.S. citizen—being detained by the military, sent to Guantanamo and then never able to be tried in an Article III court in the United States.
Welcome the slippery slope.
Interestingly the amendment has enjoyed bi-partisan support in the in the Senate Armed Services Committee. In an op-ed in the Washington Post Senator Levin and Senator McCain recently argued that the proposed amendments are not likely to have much if any impact on current procedures and the legislation gives the President the authority to opt out of the military detention option in a particular case if certain criteria are met. That argument, even if true, does not address the underlying issue: why should military detention be the default option in these cases to begin with?
Is it because the military has proven to be more capable in effectively detaining terrorists or others in the past? The sad history of abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo clearly show the fallacy of that proposition. Is it because the military has proven to be more efficient and effective at trying terrorist suspects? Here again, the long and sad history of the military commissions process and the utter inability of the commissions to effectively, fairly and efficiently try suspected terrorists belies any claim that this is a better format for these trials.
The fact is that the military’s job is to fight and win wars—not to act as the primary governmental institution authorized to detain and try terrorist suspects.
It seems likely that efforts by the Senate Armed Services Committee to add these detainee amendments to the NDAA have much more to do with politics and demagoguery than with legitimate national security concerns. And because these proposed amendments put us clearly on the slippery slope, we are all the worse for it.