Playing politics with terrorism


The ploy was classic Bush administration, going back to the first Patriot Act. Drop a complicated piece of legislation on the table and demand that Congress pass it immediately, without serious consideration, or stand accused of impeding the war on terror.

This time it is the revival of a White House plan for military commissions after the Supreme Court found that an earlier plan violated the Constitution and international law.

"Time is of the essence. Congress is in session just a few more weeks, and passing this legislation ought to be a top priority," Bush said, as he sent his 89-page proposal to Congress. It is a cold, calculated political gambit, and more than a little disingenuous.

The court ruled against the administration on June 29, and because the courts had repeatedly ruled that Bush was overstepping his authority on the war of terror, his advisers should have been prepared for an adverse decision.

So why now?

Probably because the revised military commissions still do not meet the objections of the courts, the military lawyers who must live with them and several senior members of Congress.

The president’s commissions _ instead of tracking closely with the existing military code of justice, as the law and treaties seem to require _ would allow defendants to be prosecuted with evidence they are barred from seeing, allow them to be excluded from their own trials and allow the use of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques.

The administration would have Congress override the Supreme Court ruling by declaring that its military commissions are, in fact, constitutional and in accord with international law. The president’s bill would also limit Geneva Convention prohibitions on "humiliating and degrading" treatment of prisoners.

The White House seems determined to pre-empt a military-commission bill sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham that takes into account the high court’s objections.

For four years, the Bush administration has been in no hurry to try the Guantanamo Bay detainees, now including 14 al Qaeda suspects who had been in secret detention. The newfound haste seems especially fishy coming on the eve of midterm congressional elections.

True, Congress will only be around for the next three, maybe four weeks, but the lawmakers will have to come back for a lame-duck session. There’s time for careful, dispassionate consideration of this bill and an opportunity, even at this late date, for Congress to start acting like a co-equal branch of government.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)