Senate Judiciary Panel Looks at Detainee Deal

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The Senate Judiciary Committee begins considering the details of the agreement between the White House and GOP senators over how to interrogate detainees.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A deal struck late last week between Republican senators and the White House on the treatment of foreign detainees came in for some sharp criticism today on Capitol Hill. The Republican Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hastily organized hearing on a provision that would curb the ability of these detainees to challenge their detention and treatment in federal court.

Here's more from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter called today's hearing because he fears the military commissions deal all but suspends the time honored right of detainees to go before a judge and challenge their detention, what's known as the writ of habeas corpus.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): In the Constitution, many don't know about it, but habeas corpus can be suspended only in time of rebellion or in time of invasion, and neither is present here.

WELNA: But that contention was challenged by attorney Bradford Berenson, who was a White House Counsel during President Bush's first term in office.

Mr. BRADFORD BERENSON (Former White House Counsel): There was a physical invasion of this country on 9/11. Our financial center was attacked, the nerve center of the United States military was attacked and that was done by alien enemy combatants on our soil.

WELNA: Specter replied he had a question for Berenson.

Senator SPECTER: It's a simple question. Is the invasion still going on?

Mr. BERENSON: If there are al-Qaida cells still operating in the United States and planning further attacks, then I believe it is, yes.

Senator SPECTER: Okay, well that's a big if.

WELNA: Specter was joined in his opposition to stripping the habeas corpus protections by the panel's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy. He said the military commission's bill would give Congressional blessing to practices at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): This provision would perpetuate the indefinite detention of hundreds of individuals against whom the government has brought no charges and presented no evidence and without any recourse to justice whatsoever. This is un-American. This is un-American.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator SPECTER: There'll be no demonstrations from the people in the room.

WELNA: That was Chairman Specter trying to bring order as a group in the hearing room wearing red shirts stood and turned, spelling out in big black letters on their backs the word torture.

Retired Rear Admiral John Hudson, a former naval law officer, appeared sympathetic to the protest.

Rear Admiral JOHN HUDSON (U.S. Navy, retired): The problem, Senator, is that the Emperor has no clothes. We all know what we're talking about here. We're talking about 450 people that we don't know what to do with. That's what this is all about.

WELNA: But Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, who's a close ally of the president, argued there's a very good reason to restrict habeas corpus protections.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Some forget these are enemies of the United States captured on the battlefield. These are not individuals who have been arrested for committing crimes and then who are entitled to all of the process an American citizen would in an Article 3 court. These are enemies of the United States on the battlefield.

WELNA: Cornyn's assertion brought an angry response from Thomas Sullivan, whose law firm represents ten Saudi Arabians who've been held at Guantanamo.

Mr. THOMAS SULLIVAN (Attorney): None of the ten we represent were captured on the battlefield or enemies of the United States. You said no one suggested that the enemy combatants were entitled to the habeas corpus. The Supreme Court of the United States in the Rasoul case two years held specifically that they were entitled to habeas corpus.

WELNA: Another reason not to do away with habeas corpus, according to Bruce Fein, who served as Associate Deputy Attorney General in the Reagan Administration is there can be a great temptation by those in power to withhold exculpatory evidence from detainees for political gain.

Mr. BRUCE FEIN (Former Associate Deputy Attorney General): The greater the number of enemy combatants detained, the greater the public appearance that the fight against international terrorism is succeeding. And in politics, optics is everything.

WELNA: The senators who opposed the stripping of habeas corpus protections say when the military commission's bill hits the Senate floor, probably later this week, they'll try amending it or even delaying it.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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