Senate Committees Hear Guantanamo Testimony
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And in Washington yesterday, two Senate committees heard testimony from Justice and Defense Department officials about war crimes trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees. Congress and the White House are trying to work out a new system since the Supreme Court ruled that the old one violated U.S. and international law.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
The White House is circulating a draft proposal for military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. It's easy to find online. News organizations have reported on it, so Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts wanted to know why Congress is out of the loop.
Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): When do we expect to get the draft, or does the chair have any information of when we - what the timing of this so that we would know?
SHAPIRO: Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter wearily replied…
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): We've had hoped to have had the draft in advance of this hearing so that we could have asked more specific questions.
SHAPIRO: But even without a copy of the draft legislation, senators had some pointed questions for the witnesses. Specter was most concerned about a proposal that would let the defense secretary add crimes to the list of offenses that could be prosecuted in the Guantanamo tribunals.
Senator SPECTER: Wouldn't it be preferable - if the administration wants to make additions - that you come to Congress now to tell us what you have in mind? And let us consider it, or let us add them if we think it is correct - as opposed to moving again on risky ground and having the issue go to the Supreme Court again.
SHAPIRO: Congress is only holding these hearings because the Supreme Court ruled that the president overstepped his bounds when he established military commissions for Guantanamo detainees without approval from Congress. But Steven Bradbury of the Justice Department said Specter was over stating the defense secretary's authority in the proposed legislation.
Mr. STEVEN BRADBURY (Justice Department): I would not say that the secretary of defense would be creating new crimes from whole cloth, but rather that the secretary of defense would be recognizing offenses that exist under the laws of war and providing for their prosecution in the military commission process.
SHAPIRO: One of the Supreme Court's concerns was that the tribunals at Guantanamo permitted evidence obtained through coercion. At the Judiciary Committee hearings, some of the country's top military lawyers testified that they believe coercive interrogation techniques are not useful. Rear Admiral Bruce McDonald is the Navy's head lawyer.
Rear Admiral BRUCE MCDONALD (Naval Lawyer): I would just offer that having visited Guantanamo and talked to our interrogators at Guantanamo that they strongly believe that coercion, torture, doesn't work. And that it doesn't get you the actionable intelligence that we need.
SHAPIRO: At a separate hearing in the afternoon, Senator John McCain took up the same issue with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. McCain noted that the White House's draft legislation would bar evidence obtained through torture. And he asked Gonzales…
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Mr. Attorney General, do you believe that statements obtained through illegal inhumane treatment should be admissible?
SHAPIRO: After a long pause, the attorney general replied.
Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I - well, again, I'll say this. The concern that I would have about such a prohibition is what does it mean, how you defined it? And so, I think, if we could all reach agreement about the definition of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, then perhaps I could give you an answer.
SHAPIRO: Gonzales later said that if you bar coerced testimony from war crimes trials, every member of al-Qaida will claim that evidence against him was obtained through coercion. The attorney general said the White House draft plan largely follows the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with a few important changes. Under this plan, detainees would not be allowed to see some of the evidence against them. Hearsay evidence would be permitted, and defendants would not have a pre-trial hearing.
A larger question hung over both of yesterday's hearings, a question that did not directly relate to the war crimes trials. At the conclusion of the judiciary hearing, Specter asked it: how long will these detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay?
Senator SPECTER: Does anybody have an alternative to forever? Or until we conclude the war of terrorism is over, whichever occurs last?
SHAPIRO: The silence, Specter said, is profound.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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