No quick action on prisoner abuse

The Senate is unlikely to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of suspected terrorists until after Congress’ August recess, Majority Leader Bill Frist said Monday.

Frist’s plan not to act until this fall pushes the Guantanamo issue squarely into election season, when Republicans will be seeking support from voters by focusing on national security issues.

Republicans are discussing their legislative options among themselves, Democrats and the Bush administration, said Frist, R-Tenn.

“We will act legislatively,” he said.

The Supreme Court on June 29 ruled 5-to-3 that President Bush’s plan to try detainees captured in the war on terror through military tribunals violated U.S. and international law. Some 450 detainees are being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

The decision put the ball in Congress’ court to pass legislation dictating how suspected terrorists should be prosecuted.

Lawmakers and congressional aides say there are a range of options that could be pursued, including passing legislation specifically authorizing Bush’s proposed military tribunals or setting up a system similar to military courts-martial.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, plans to hold the first of several hearings this week on the issue. The committee, followed by the House and Senate Armed Services committees, plans to hear from active and retired military officials and legal experts.

“We need to have a body of law directed at this new battlefield” against terrorists, said Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and an advocate of the administration’s treatment of detainees.

Hunter, Frist and other lawmakers have said they remain undecided on how the legislation should look, and several congressional aides said members are waiting to hear from the administration before moving forward. The exception is Specter, who has introduced legislation that would authorize a tribunal system but impose requirements on the Defense Department to ensure each prisoner is afforded sufficient “due process.”

The matter of detainees’ legal treatment has long been the subject of much debate in Congress, including among Republicans. Some conservatives have supported the Bush administration’s desire to prosecute suspected terrorists using the military tribunals, whereas others suggest there should be less secrecy in the system.

Intended to protect classified information, the military tribunals would grant fewer rights to suspected terrorists. Unlike the military courts-martial system and civil courts, defendants have limited rights to appeal.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly last year to ban cruel and inhumane treatment when interrogating prisoners, but only after fierce debate on whether Taliban fighters and other suspected terrorists should be afforded certain legal rights.

The Bush administration has asserted that its tribunal system is lawful and detainees are not protected under the Geneva Conventions, intended to safeguard prisoners of war, including U.S. troops, from abusive treatment.

The Supreme Court ruled last month, however, that Bush’s military commissions would violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions signed in 1949.

A group of retired military officers who oppose the administration’s position on the treatment of detainees asked members of Congress to block the appointment of the Pentagon’s general counsel to a seat on a federal U.S. court because of his role in crafting the Pentagon’s detainee policy. William J. Haynes II has been nominated for a seat on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“What compels us to take this unusual step is our profound concern about the role Mr. Haynes played in establishing _ over the objections of uniformed military lawyers _ detention and interrogation policies … which led not only to the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody but to a dangerous abrogation of the military’s longstanding commitment to the rule of law,” the retired officers wrote in a letter to Specter and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The letter, dated Friday but distributed Monday, was signed by about 20 retired military officers, including Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, former head of U.S. Central Command.

Sens. George Allen, R-Va., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are scheduled to visit the Guantanamo Bay military prison this week. Allen is running for re-election and is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. Durbin has sharply criticized the treatment of prisoners.

© 2006 The Associated Press