consortiumnews.com

Who Is 'Any Person' in Tribunal Law?

By Robert Parry
October 19, 2006

The New York Times lead editorial gives false comfort to American citizens by assuring them that they will not be victims of George W. Bush’s new draconian system for prosecuting enemies of the U.S. government in military tribunals outside constitutional protections.

“This law does not apply to American citizens,” the Times editorial stated, “but it does apply to other legal United States residents. And it chips away at the foundations of the judicial system in ways that all Americans should find threatening.” [NYT, Oct. 19, 2006]

However, the Times analysis appears to be far too gentle. While it’s true that some parts of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 target non-citizens, other sections clearly apply to U.S. citizens as well, putting citizens inside the same tribunal system with resident aliens and foreigners.

“Any person is punishable as a principal under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission,” according to the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in September and signed by Bush on Oct. 17.

“Any person subject to this chapter who, in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States ... shall be punished as a military commission … may direct. …

If the Times is correct that “this law does not apply to American citizens,” why does it contain language referring to “any person” and then adding in an adjacent context a reference to people acting “in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States”?

Who has “an allegiance or duty to the United States” if not an American citizen? That provision would not presumably apply to Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, nor would it apply generally to foreign citizens. This section of the law appears to be singling out American citizens.

Court-Stripping

Though the new law specifically strips non-U.S. citizens of habeas corpus – the right to a fair trial – American citizens caught up in Bush’s legal system also would be denied the right to challenge their incarceration.

Besides allowing for “any person” to go into Bush’s system, the law prohibits detainees once inside the system from appealing to the traditional American courts until a defendant is fully prosecuted and sentenced, which could translate into an indefinite imprisonment since there are no timetables for Bush’s tribunal process to play out.

The law states that once a person is detained, “no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever … relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission under this chapter, including challenges to the lawfulness of procedures of military commissions.”

That court-stripping provision – barring “any claim or cause of action whatsoever” – would seem to deny American citizens habeas corpus rights just as it does for non-citizens. If a person can’t file a motion with a court, he can’t assert any constitutional rights, including habeas corpus.

Other constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights – such as a speedy trial, the right to reasonable bail and the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” – would seem to be beyond an American detainee’s reach as well.

Though the New York Times suggests that the new law “chips away at the foundations of the judicial system,” the law actually seems to obliterate the old judicial system.

Secret Trials

By putting detainees, apparently including American citizens outside the U.S. constitutional process, Bush’s system makes a mockery of the Sixth Amendment in particular. It reads:

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed … and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; [and] to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses.”

By contrast, in Bush’s system, there are no guarantees of either a speedy or a public trial. Secrecy dominates in a process run by U.S. military officers whose careers depend on the favor of the Commander in Chief.

Under the new law, the military judge “may close to the public all or a portion of the proceedings” if he deems that the evidence must be kept secret for national security reasons. Those concerns can be conveyed to the judge through ex parte – or one-sided – communications from the prosecutor or a government representative.

The judge also can exclude the accused from the trial if there are safety concerns or if the defendant is disruptive. Plus, the judge can admit evidence obtained through coercion if he determines it “possesses sufficient probative value” and “the interests of justice would best be served by admission of the statement into evidence.”

The law permits, too, the introduction of secret evidence “while protecting from disclosure the sources, methods, or activities by which the United States acquired the evidence if the military judge finds that ... the evidence is reliable.”

During trial, the prosecutor would have the additional right to assert a “national security privilege” that could stop “the examination of any witness,” presumably by the defense if the questioning touched on any sensitive matter.

In effect, what the new law appears to do is to create a parallel “star chamber” system for the prosecution, imprisonment and elimination of enemies of the state, whether those enemies are foreign or domestic.

Terror Fears

The Times editorial writers might also take into account the circumstances under which Bush is likely to execute his new powers. Imagine, for example, a terrorist incident or a threat of one somewhere in the United States. Amid public anger and fear, Bush or some future President could begin rounding up citizens and non-citizens alike.

Once these detainees are locked up at Guantanamo Bay or some other prison facility, they could be held incommunicado and denied access to civilian courts under the law’s court-stripping provision.

It could take years before the U.S. Supreme Court even addresses these detentions and – given the increasingly right-wing make-up of the Court – there would be no assurance that the justices wouldn’t endorse the President’s extraordinary powers.

The Times also might want to take note of the curious provision in the law that would jail “any person” who “collects or attempts to collect information by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States.”

Since the Bush administration and its political allies often have accused the New York Times of collecting and publishing information, from confidential sources, that is helpful to U.S. enemies – for instance, the stories about Bush’s secret wiretapping program – this provision arguably could apply to Times reporters and editors.

This “spying” provision not only puts alleged offenders into Bush’s special legal system but it could result in the offenders being sentenced to death.

So, before assuring American citizens that they’re safe from Bush’s draconian system, the Times editors might check on why these “any person” provisions were put into the law. For more than two centuries, the civilian U.S. legal system has handled similar crimes, including allegations of spying and charges of Americans aiding foreign enemies.

Yet now, under the cloak of setting up military tribunals to try al-Qaeda suspects and other so-called “unlawful enemy combatants,” Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have effectively created a parallel legal system for “any person” – American citizen or otherwise – who crosses some line and becomes an enemy of the state.

The Times editors may believe that to raise these concerns is alarmist. But over the past six years, Bush and his administration have routinely stretched legal language to aggrandize their power, not the other way around.

There are a multitude of reasons to think that Bush will now interpret every legal ambiguity in the new law in his favor, as granting him the broadest possible powers over people he perceives as his enemies.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

Back to Home Page