Detainee debate splits Hill

The White House’s announcement Tuesday that it will apply Geneva Convention standards to suspected terrorists did little to quiet political arguments on Capitol Hill over the legal rights of detainees.

Democrats blasted the administration for not acting sooner, while Republicans contended the Democrats’ plans would make it too difficult to prosecute terrorists.

The policy, outlined in a new Defense Department memo and congressional testimony, reflects the recent 5-3 Supreme Court decision blocking military tribunals set up by President Bush. The court ruled that the secret tribunals, established by Bush to try suspected terrorists, do not obey international law and had not been authorized by Congress.

The ruling opened the door for Congress to pass legislation on where and how military detainees could be prosecuted. The Senate is expected to take up legislation addressing the legal rights of suspected terrorists after the August recess.

The Supreme Court decision rankled many conservatives who have long maintained that the president does not need permission from Congress to detain indefinitely enemy combatants captured on the battlefield.

Finding a legislative solution to the Supreme Court ruling is “not going to be easy because some of the suggestions on the other side would make it almost impossible to not disclose classified information and in some ways make hearsay evidence unavailable,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Hatch and other conservatives, along with the Bush administration, have said they would oppose prosecuting terror suspects using the military’s court-martial system because it could expose sensitive information and hinder interrogations. The system also would prohibit hearsay evidence, which they contend is necessary for convictions of terrorists and common in international military tribunals.

Democrats say they have largely been shut out of meetings with administration officials on the issue and are frustrated with the White House decision not to prosecute detainees using the existing court-martial system.

Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the court decision “has given our system of constitutional checks and balances a tonic that was sorely needed.”

“We need to know why we are being asked to deviate from rules for courts-martial,” Leahy said.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also member of the Judiciary panel, said he was caught off guard by the court ruling and has been disappointed with the partisan rhetoric from Democrats.

“Let’s see what the administration comes up with. That’s a start,” Kyl said, adding that he hopes the Senate will have a sound bill in September.

© 2006 The Associated Press