WASHINGTON — The indefinite holding of foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay is creating new political headaches for President Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill.
At a time when the administration is trying to mend fences with its European allies and heal wounds with the Muslim world over Iraq, the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. military prison in Cuba is commanding more and more world attention.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michael Wiggens and Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, right, appear before the Senate Judiciary committee on Capitol Hill Wednesday, June 15, 2005, to discuss the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook) (Dennis Cook – AP)
It could put Bush in an awkward position next month in Scotland at the annual meeting of the world’s leading industrialized nations. The president and the host of the eight-nation summit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are both trying to get beyond Iraq and to focus on less controversial subjects such as alleviating poverty in Africa.
International human rights groups have decried U.S. prisoner-treatment practices and policies at Guantanamo Bay, with Amnesty International calling the prison “the gulag of our time” and former President Carter adding his voice to those seeking its closure.
Many Republicans in Congress readily echoed the administration in arguing to keep the prison open, asserting that instances of prisoner abuse were isolated and that many detainees were dangerous individuals bent on harming the United States.
Defending holding them indefinitely, with no charges being filed and with no rights to legal representation, has proved a harder concept to embrace and defend, even for Bush loyalists. It appears to violate cherished bedrock American tenants of jurisprudence.
“The overwhelming majority of the people at Guantanamo Bay have never been charged with any wrongdoing, they have never appeared before any court of law. … They may be held for as long as the president sees fit under any conditions the military may devise,” said Joseph Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer who represented Mamdouh Habib, an Egypt-born Australian citizen recently released from Guantanamo after being held for three years.
Margulies testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday into legal procedures and practices at the prison.
The growing strains among Republicans became evident Wednesday as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee chairman, scolded the GOP-run Congress for not doing more to clarify the rights of detainees.
“It may be that it’s too hot to handle for Congress, may be that it’s too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as we customarily do. … But at any rate, Congress hasn’t acted,” Specter said.
The Supreme Court ruled last June that prisoners seized as potential terrorists and held in Cuba may challenge their captivity in American courts. But subsequent actions by lower federal courts have resulted in a “crazy quilt,” with few cases resolved, Specter said.
“It’s going to be very hard, with those kinds of allegations out there, for Congress to stay out of it,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Democrats seized on the issue as further ammunition against Republican leadership, calling the prison a legal black hole for some 520 detainees from more than 40 countries.
“Guantanamo is an international embarrassment to our nation, to our ideals and remains a festering threat to our security,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday that the administration has discussed whether it should stop holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo. “That’s a question that is evaluated, I would say, quite often,” he told reporters during a trip to Sheffield, England.
Earlier, however, Gonzales said, “We can’t release them and have them go back to fight against America.” He said terror suspects could be detained “for the duration of hostilities.”
He said he believed about a dozen people released from Guantanamo had later been killed or captured “on the battlefield” fighting against the United States. The U.S. has freed over 230 detainees from Guantanamo since the camp was set up.
“There will of course be an end,” Gonzales said. But the attorney general said that would depend on Bush. He didn’t offer any timeline.
“All of us know this war will not end in our lifetime,” Leahy countered.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, trying to defuse the issue, told reporters, “Eventually, you would hope that Guantanamo Bay would not be necessary, because you’ve either returned people to their countries of origin or you’ve otherwise moved forward on the legal process.”
Specter noted that Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the more conservative members of the court, had suggested in a dissent to the June 2004 ruling that the onus was on Congress for “intelligent revision of the statutes” to spell out rights of such detainees.
Specter said Congress has failed to meet that challenge and rejected suggestions that a commission be set up to study the issue of guaranteeing Guantanamo detainees due process.
“Before we ask someone else to come in, let’s do our job,” Specter said.