Leahy: President Mishandled Guantanamo Detainees

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) talks with Steve Inskeep about the use of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He says the president has mishandled the detainees and that Congress needs to provide guidance on how to process them.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the Senators who's considering what to do next is Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, and senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. Senator, welcome to the program.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what you do next. The Supreme Court has said that Congress can legalize some form of criminal proceedings for these suspected terrorists. On the one hand, you could legalize what the Bush administration is already doing, these military commissions or tribunals. Maybe on the other extreme, you could do more of a regular trial, like a military court martial where the defendant has many more rights. What are the other options on the table?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, I think that the most important thing is go back and do something that's legal. I don't think we should be rushing forward and saying, okay, a Republican-controlled Supreme Court says that the Bush/Cheney administration has been breaking the law, so we'll just suddenly immunize them. That is just going to increase the criticism we're hearing around the world.

INSKEEP: You're against just allowing what's already been done. Are your Republican colleagues onboard with that too?

Sen. LEAHY: I think some are. I mean, what's been done so far has been incompetence. We haven't had a single trial; we haven't had a single conviction. We're getting criticized around the world. We've had people committing suicide down there, and we've had - and it's turned out embarrassingly to us a number of instances we had totally innocent people being held in prison.

INSKEEP: So, Senator, do you want to go to the other extreme then, and give them something under the Uniform Code of Military Justice? A regular court martial where they get a defense lawyer, where they can present a solid defense, where they can confront the accuser, and other right.

Sen. LEAHY: Well, we can do a special military commission but use some of the basic part - the Uniform Code of Military Justice. For one this, we would doing what we tell the rest of the world they're supposed to be do.

INSKEEP: You said you would be willing to modify the regular trial in some way, to take away some of the rights of a suspected terrorist as opposed to a regular criminal defendant in the United States or in a military court. What are some of the rights you would then take away?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, you don't have a trial by jury in the normal courtroom sense here. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice you have court martial; we can do a form of that. We can be saying, look, in America, no one's above the law. We are not terrorists and we shouldn't behave like them. We want our soldiers to be given certain rights in other countries, we've got to show we're willing to do the same thing.

INSKEEP: So do you make it the same as a military court martial, or how do you change it if you don't?

Sen. LEAHY: That's why we're having the hearings now. Back in 2001, I introduced legislation for military commissions, which, at least as I read the Supreme Court decision, had that been followed, that would have been upheld.

INSKEEP: How'd it work?

Sen. LEAHY: It was basically a military commission, but allowing people to know what the evidence is against them and allowing them to be heard.

INSKEEP: Even if the military says, gosh, this evidence is classified and we can't be handing that information to a terror suspect?

Sen. LEAHY: You know, I was a prosecutor for eight years. I would have loved to have been able to say when I went to court, gee, your honor, I've been offered a lot of great evidence against this person, but we can't tell you or the person what it is against him. Just take my word for it. They're guilty. That would have gone over big.

INSKEEP: So you would want a courtroom setting where there can be a fuller airing of the evidence then?

Sen. LEAHY: Of course. I mean, the fact is you have people down there. We found this out now, much to our embarrassment, that in some instances they just picked up somebody who had a similar name, who were totally innocent.

INSKEEP: Although, if your plan were to pass, I can hear someone saying these are some of the worst people on earth. And Senator Leahy and other Democrats want them to have lawyers and access to the ACLU and all kinds of rights enabled - on the ability to drag things out.

Sen. LEAHY: But what you're doing is reading the White House talking points in saying that. My response to that is say, you guys have done such a great job? You've had a Republican-controlled Supreme Court tell you you've been breaking the law. And what have you got to show for it? Not one single conviction.

INSKEEP: Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

Senator, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Sen. LEAHY: Take care.

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