Reshaping Policy on Guantanamo Detainees

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The White House is crafting a new way to deal with Guantanamo Bay detainees after the Supreme Court rejects the Bush administration's military tribunal system.


Now to Washington. Republicans are scrambling to craft legislation after yesterday's Supreme Court decision against military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.

NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams is here to talk about that and other political news. And, Juan, the Supreme Court said military tribunals for detainees set up by this administration are not legal. And here is President Bush speaking just after the decision was released:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: As I understand it - now, don't - please don't hold me to this - that there is a way forward with military tribunals in working with the United States Congress. As I understand, certain senators have already been out expressing their desire to address what the Supreme Court found, and we will work with the Congress.

BRAND: Well, Juan, how will he work with the Congress? What is the way forward?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Well, his hope is, Madeleine, is that what he can do is get the Congress to give him the authority to take away powers from the courts, and you know, there's something that was tried along this line last December. There was a law signed into effect last December 30th that was intended to stop detainees from gaining access to the U.S. courts. It was called the Detainee Treatment Act, and principally written by Senators Graham, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Carl Levin of Michigan, and then Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona also joined in. And the big question there was whether or not you have Congress able to take authority away from the courts.

But Justice Stevens, John Paul Stevens, when his decision, writing for the majority this week, said that's not possible, and that he found that there was clear effort by Congress to move away from the fact that the courts have this authority, and have had this authority all along. So President Bush would be going back to the Congress to ask them again to look and see if there's a possibility of writing a law that would take this away from the Supreme Court, and give him and the White House - the presidency - the authority to deal with detainees as a special category.

BRAND: And yesterday's decision, regarding the Detainee Treatment Act, the justices addressed it and said, well, it doesn't apply to cases filed before that act became law. But it - but the Court said nothing about cases going forward.

WILLIAMS: No. And what - well, you know, I think that what you have here is a situation where there is confusion in the Detainee Treatment Act. Carl Levin, who, as I mentioned before, was a sponsor, has said repeatedly that it did not apply to pending cases. That what he was looking for was moving forward. And so, again, there's confusion in the legislature here.

You know, when you have the balance of powers - legislative, judiciary and executive - there's a confusion here, and what the Court is doing is asserting itself, and I might add, Madeleine, you know, asserting itself with a Republican, now, majority sitting on the bench and saying, wait a second, you cannot simply move us out of the equation when it comes to the treatment of these prisoners who are under American authority.

BRAND: Well, given the fact that the war is going so badly, and President Bush's approval ratings are pretty low, will it be more difficult for him to get Congress to pass a more stringent act - a more stringent law?

WILLIAMS: Well, the argument will be made, as the President made in his, sort of, impromptu comments when he was asked about this at a press conference this week. He seemed unfamiliar with the decision at that time, so he was somewhat, you know, stuttering and skipping. But what the President seemed to indicate was, you know, we're at war. There has to be special amendments, special considerations for the fact that this is a different kind of war. And his - he expressed the fear that somehow murderers will be put back on the streets, in those simple terms.

But - so that will be the kind of emotional appeal, that somehow this is a different set of circumstances. It's different than any war America has ever fought. And he feels that he needs added authority, free from the courts, you know, oversight, or the congressional - Congress's oversight in order to keep America safe.

BRAND: Okay. Let's look at another Supreme Court decision from this week. This is the Texas redistricting decision, held that redistricting is mostly constitutional. What struck you about that ruling?

WILLIAMS: Well, there are two things, Madeleine. First, you know, there was also a ruling that said that even though it was constitutional, they could not create an imbalance in one district that was previously a Hispanic majority, and so that they would go back and look at that. And so that struck me, the thing - you know, we think it's okay for legislatures to redistrict even in the middle their of their term. Usually they redistricting in concert with the census, at the, you know, every 10 years. Now the Court's saying you can do it any time you like.

And it really, to my mind, tilts the playing field. The playing field now, it seems to me, is really in the hands of the politicians. Already, we have a Congress that, you know, there are only about 30 seats up this year where people are thinking they're competitive. It's going to get even worse, Madeleine, if you're thinking about the dynamism of our political process, our democracy. And that's a terrific challenge going forward. I think it's going to increase the amount of cynicism the American people have about their ability to get their politicians to respond.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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