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Liberty vs. Security: An NPR Special Report

To address the issues of curbing civil liberties in the name of national security, NPR Online offers a "virtual roundtable" of lawmakers, current and former government lawyers and legal experts.

Philip Heymann

Philip Heymann

Philip Heymann, Harvard law professor and former U.S. deputy attorney general, in prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee Nov. 28, 2001:

I am pleased to testify because the committee is reviewing what I regard as one of the clearest mistakes and one of the most dangerous claims of executive power in the almost fifty years that I have been in and out of government. I do not say that as a civil libertarian; I have always considered public safety to be fully as relevant as democratic traditions when they really are in conflict. So my advice to members of your staff and the House Judiciary staff on the administration's bill revised as the Patriot statute, was that, with some exceptions, the provisions were reasonable and often overdue. I do not have the same reaction to the president's order on military trials.

At the same time I reject as "knee-jerk" the security reactions of columnists such as George Will or the law professors he quotes, including my good friend and admired colleague, Larry Tribe. They are at least as dangerous as the thoughtless objections of those on the opposite side. I have personally seen and studied the effects of military courts in Guatemala where I later worked, and in Argentina, Paraguay, and the People's Republic of China. I have seen the fear and hatred they engender in a population and compared that to the immense appreciation and respect both our military and our courts have long enjoyed. I have watched the strained identification with us that the leaders of Zimbabwe and Egypt have based on our "shared" recourse to military courts, a step rejected by Britain, France, Germany, and Italy when they were under sustained terrorist attacks. Knee-jerk reactions are no safer on one side of these issues than on the other.

We have a deep tradition -- expressed powerfully in the Declaration of Independence - of confining military courts and secret proceedings to as small an area of necessity as possible. Only in the following circumstances have our courts allowed military tribunals to try citizens and aliens alike: where in a wartime situation there are no operable civilian courts; where, before peace is declared, there is to be a trial of wartime atrocities against the internationally recognized laws of war; where spies attached to a belligerent nation have been caught behind our lines. In all other situations they have refused, in inspired language, to depart from a legal tradition so old, so important, and so much a part of what we stand for.

There is, in short, a high constitutional presumption of civilian trials, except in a few identified situations during quite traditional wars, recognized as such by the Congress, where we could lose our freedoms to another nation. I will not argue today whether a war on many forms of terrorism continuing until this century-long modern phenomenon is ended will, unlike a war on the murderous Colombian cartels or the Mafia, qualify as a war for the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on military trials. I doubt it. In any event, the detention provisions of the same presidential order clearly do not satisfy the specified Constitution criteria for extra-judicial detention: "invasion or rebellion" leading Congress to suspend habeas corpus.

I don't need the heavy presumption, captured by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, to make my case. Nor need I refer to the last six words of the pledge of allegiance. Like almost everyone else who has studied how nations have handled terrorism, I ask only that the government consider and specify openly what are the costs and benefits of any change in democratic traditions it proposes. If Attorney General Ashcroft or President Bush had done this with regard to the importance and scope of their prospective change from civilian courts to secret military tribunals, the public would not accept the change. Certainly the Congress would not agree to it.

Let me review the benefits, costs and inflammatory breadth of the President's order.

The benefits. The proposal will help solve whatever problem remains after more than two decades of legislation and proud law enforcement experience in dealing with the difficulties of civilian trials of terrorists and spies. The Congress has passed "extra-territorial" criminal statutes that apply stern measures to terrorism committed abroad against Americans. It has passed statutes allowing special electronic and physical searches of spies and terrorists from other countries and has just extended, in a very sensible way, their scope.

Two decades ago I helped author a statute to allow trials while protecting national secrets. The intelligence investigators and prosecutors have used it with immense success. We have decades of experience in protecting witnesses. There is precedent, from the United Kingdom, that allows the conviction, as a conspirator or accomplice, of someone who has aided terrorists without proof that he had to know of the specific crime. We have on several occasions flown back to the U.S. for trial terrorists arrested by U.S. intelligence or law enforcement halfway around the world. In our courts there is no available exclusionary rule or other defense for a non-American searched or captured abroad, even if the search or arrest did not comply with the requirements of the Fourth (or any other) Amendment for searches and seizures in the United States.

Using these well-developed capacities, we have had remarkable success in trying and convicting the terrorists responsible for the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I have a hard time thinking of the prosecutorial benefits of military tribunals over civilian tribunals so fully empowered as ours, except that the military tribunals could, by selection or message from higher authority, use their secrecy, their lesser burden of proof, and the possibility of conviction by a two/thirds vote to convict without even the evidence that a jury of angry, patriotic Americans would demand.

The costs. What then are the costs of authorizing for all non-citizens indefinite detention without trial or, alternatively, a secret military trial with secret or untested evidence before a military panel chosen and evaluated by their commander, without judicial review of the adequacy of the evidence. To these must be added a possible death sentence for any of about 18 million non-citizens living in the United States (about one-third of whom may have violated their terms of entry) whenever the executive decides they have engaged, or are engaged, in terrorism related or unrelated to al Qaeda. I will list only a dozen such costs.

(1) The authorization claims the critical powers -- executive detention unreviewable in any court and secret military trials -- of a police state, at the unreviewed discretion of the executive, over millions of individuals lawfully living in the United States, based on an unreviewed suspicion of unidentified forms of support of undefined political violence with an unspecific international connection. In doing so it will undermine the support and loyalty of many millions here in the U.S. and their relatives abroad. At the same time it will stifle speech and legitimate dissent among those covered.

(2) If sustained by Congress and the courts, it would create a precedent very likely to be applicable to citizens. The Supreme Court declined to draw any distinction between citizens and aliens in Ex Parte Quirin. The "military order" itself is careful to preserve the "lawful authority of the Secretary of Defense... to detain or try any person... not subject to this order."

(3) It relegates the Congress as well as the courts to a position of impotence in addressing one of the most fundamental questions about how much of our democratic tradition we will preserve. Nothing in the joint resolution of Sept. 18, 2001, that authorized the use of "necessary and appropriate" force, remotely considers (approves or rejects) military detention and secret trials in the United States.

(4) It deprives the U.S. of its historic claim of moral leadership among the world's nations in matters of fairness to individuals, leaving us in the position of encouraging the outrages of dictators like President Mugabe. It will make more difficult future efforts at military coalition-building.

(5) It has denied us, and will deny us, the benefits of legal cooperation with our closest allies in the form of extradition and mutual legal assistance.

(6) It will create resentment, fear and suspicion of the military, our most respected profession, undoing much of the benefits of more than a century during which the Posse Comitatus Act has protected the military from public fear and resentment.

(7) It will end a 20-year successful effort to win respect and trust for a long-ridiculed military justice system.

(8) It undermines public confidence in the ability of our law enforcement to handle cases of international terrorism -- confidence hard-earned with the patient, intelligent legislative help of the U.S. Congress.

(9) It will leave lasting doubts about the honesty of convictions in the wake of secret trials with secret evidence.

(10) It will teach American children, particularly the children of immigrants, that this is not a nation "with liberty and justice for all."

(11) If we are at "war," the president's order directly conflicts with our obligations under Article 102 of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War that requires trials of prisoners of war, even for war crimes, only under "the same procedure" as we use in Courts Martial of our own soldiers.

(12) Unless a secret military tribunal whose personnel are chosen and later evaluated by the executive is an "independent and impartial tribunal," it also violates Article 14 of another treaty we have signed and ratified (The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). A non-independent tribunal is legal only if the president determines and announces that we are in a situation "which threatens the life of the nation."

The drafting. Bypassing Congressional and judicial review, the order is drafted with an appalling carelessness as to its over-broad scope. Most citizens and commentators think that it applies only to military or terrorist leaders captured abroad who have violated the laws of war. At the president's discretion:

1. It applies within the Unites States to 18 million non-citizens and it applies throughout the world to the citizens of every nation.

2. It applies to acts committed decades ago and to persons only remotely connected to those acts.

3. It allows indefinite discretionary detention without plans for any trial, even before a military tribunal.

4. It attempts to suspend habeas corpus without Congressional action or compliance with the constitutional requirements of "invasion or rebellion."

5. It has many applications the Supreme Court will not permit under the court's requirement, where civil courts can operate, of a violation of the law of war. For example, harboring an ex-terrorist is not a violation of the law of war (or else our officials who have hosted leaders of other nations who fall in this category are war criminals.)

6. It allows the president to decide when a threatening form of group crime becomes a war justifying detention and military tribunals, and to exercise that authority, without Congressional sanction. Using language with the sweep of the commerce clause of our Constitution, he has exercised that judgment by applying the order to relatively minor acts of terrorism (any act that carried "adverse effects on the U.S. ... economy") and not just to massive attacks such as those of Sept. 11, 2001.

My conclusion is simple. It should be a proud and patriotic responsibility of the Congress to protect the people of the United States against the unnecessarily dangerous path of recourse to military tribunals and detention without trial which the President has taken in response to public fears. President Bush has said that it is our traditional freedoms that al Qaeda, and its like, fear and envy. We must be prepared to fight for these traditions admired around the world. We must not surrender any fundamental liberty without manifest necessity and Congressional review. There is no such necessity and there has been no such review in the case of President Bush's "Military Order" of Nov. 13, 2001.

Philip Heymann is James Barr Ames Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. He was deputy U.S. attorney general from 1993-94, He was a Fulbright Scholar with degrees from Yale University, Harvard Law School and the Sorbonne. Heymann was an associate prosecutor and consultant to the Watergate Special Force.

Other Voices

Michael Chertoff, U.S. assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.

Griffin Bell, senior partner of Atlanta's King & Spalding law firm and former U.S. attorney general.

Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a non-governmental advocacy and research organization.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-UT), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.