Defense Authorization Bill Fails To Address Habeas Corpus For Detainees

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
The Hill
May 10, 2007
By Roxana Tiron
The new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee dealt a blow to the human-rights community by failing to include provisions to overhaul GOP legislation governing military tribunals in the 2008 defense authorization bill.
The chairman’s move is attracting criticism from some who say Democrats’ dedication to the issue is wavering.
Scores of human-rights lawyers and attorneys representing military detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have targeted Rep. Ike Skelton’s (D-Mo.) defense authorization bill as a chance to restore the writ of habeas corpus — detainees’ right to challenge the legality of their detention in court.
Skelton said he has prepared separate legislation and is planning to work with Democratic leadership, the Judiciary Committee and members of the Armed Services panel to bring a stand-alone bill to the floor. House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is supporting Skelton’s efforts to move forward with a stand-alone bill, according to a Pelosi aide.
“As an attorney and a former prosecutor, I feel very strongly about upholding the principle of habeas corpus,” Skelton said in a statement.
“My judgment is that the House is best able to undertake this effort and to be successful by acting on this issue as a separate bill.”
Concerns over a potential presidential veto of the defense authorization bill — which contains critical policies for the Pentagon — as well as a partisan split in the committee prompted Skelton to leave it to Democratic leadership to take up the issue. Congress has passed a defense authorization bill every year for the last 47 years.
A separate bill amending or overhauling the Military Commissions Act also could be a target for a White House veto.
Skelton avoided polarizing the committee by not introducing Iraq withdrawal language as part of the defense authorization bill. At least three moderate-to-conservative Democrats on the committee, Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.), Dan Boren (Okla.) and Jim Marshall (Ga.), oppose troop-withdrawal language.
The chairman’s markup asks for detailed reporting requirements on the progress in Iraq.
“I appreciate that Chairman Skelton made the prudent choice of not including in this mark any language that would amend the Military Commissions Act,” the panel’s ranking member and a presidential contender, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), said.
But those in the human-rights community fear that the House has passed up its first chance to tackle the issue of restoring habeas corpus.
“We are extremely disappointed and frankly perplexed at why the leadership would pass up this opportunity to move what they have said is a top priority,” Elisa Massimino of Human Rights First said. “If you do not swing at the first pitch, it does not bode well.”
In the Senate, Skelton’s counterpart, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is unlikely to include language restoring habeas corpus as part of his defense authorization bill because he does not have the votes in the committee, according to several sources.
Habeas corpus is a precept that dates to the Magna Carta and is a fundamental principle in the U.S. legal system. It gives any person held by the government the means to go before a court for a fair determination of whether there is a reasonable basis for detention.
There are about half a dozen bills in the Senate and the House that would restore habeas corpus, but none has received any consideration. The chairman of the two chambers’ judiciary committees, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), have expressed strong support for overhauling aspects of the Military Commissions Act of 2006.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times published editorials yesterday urging the Democratic leadership to address habeas corpus and criticizing members by saying their failure to take up the issue represents a lack of commitment to it.
Skelton’s decision comes at a time when establishment conservatives are urging Republicans to back restoring the writ of habeas corpus. Among them are the chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene; a former legal adviser to the Bush administration and former deputy secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, William H. Taft IV; and a former counsel to President Nixon, John Dean.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway in Congress to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. On Tuesday, Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) introduced legislation to shutter the facility. The chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee strongly favors closing Guantánamo and could include language to do so in the defense appropriations bill.
Additionally, efforts within the committee to restore some of the cuts to the Army’s Future Combat Systems failed. Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) offered an amendment to restore $200 million of the $867 million cut recommended by the Air and Land Forces subcommittee. He argued that a 25 percent cut in the program’s funding would set back seriously the Army’s modernization program. Akin’s amendment failed on a party-line vote.
Rep. Thelma Drake’s efforts to strike report language that directs the Navy to assess the possibility of relocating its master jet base from Virginia Beach to other potential locations also failed.
However Drake and fellow Virginian Randy Forbes (R) succeeded in watering down the language and just encourage the Navy study alternative bases if the Navy considers that to be in its interest.