The Senate approved legislation Thursday that establishes military commissions to try terrorism suspects, and clarifies U.S. policy with regard to the Geneva Conventions — a treaty which defines international standards for the treatment of war prisoners.
The bill sets standards for CIA interrogators, but human-rights groups say the rules are complex and leave room for such harsh techniques as prolonged sleep deprivation. The legislation also denies detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in court.
A version of the bill won House approval Wednesday, on a 253-168 vote. The legislation has undergone several days of modifications and additions from members of Congress and the White House. Here's the latest on what the bill says:
ON DETAINEE LEGAL RIGHTS
The Definition of 'Unlawful Enemy Combatant'
The bill expands the definition of unlawful enemy combatants to include people who have "purposefully and materially supported hostilities" and people who have been declared enemy combatants under Combat Status Review Tribunals, "or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense." Under this new language, people in the United States who are not American citizens could be declared unlawful enemy combatants and held indefinitely without trial.
The bill prohibits detainees held by the United States from filing lawsuits challenging their detention, known as habeas corpus pleadings. This wipes out both pending and future lawsuits, and it would apply to people picked up anywhere in the world, including the United States.
The provision is significant. Habeas corpus is an ancient protection that stems from English common law, and its use dates back to as early as the 12th century. In 1969, the Supreme Court called it "the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action." Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced an amendment to remove this part of the legislation. He argued that the ability to challenge one's detention is one of the most fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. The proposed amendment failed.
ON THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS
Coercive Interrogation Tactics
The bill prohibits "grave breaches" of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. That includes "cruel or inhuman treatment." But many legal analysts and government officials believe the definition of cruel or inhuman treatment as written in the bill does not encompass some of the severe interrogation tactics that the CIA has reportedly used against terrorism suspects. The bill also prohibits enemy combatants from filing lawsuits claiming a violation of their rights under the Geneva Conventions. That could make it difficult to hold accountable those who do engage in torture.
The bill gives the president the power to "interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions." Critics fear this means that the president can unilaterally authorize interrogation techniques that many people would consider torture.
War Crimes Act
The legislation would narrow the range of offenses prohibited under the War Crimes Act. This would protect civilians (such as CIA interrogators and White House officials) from being prosecuted for committing acts that would have been considered war crimes under the old definition. The change is retroactive to 1997, which means any crimes committed since 1997 would be prosecuted under the new standard, not the old one.
ON MILITARY COMMISSIONS
Evidence Obtained Through Coercion
If an enemy combatant made a statement under coercion before Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005, the evidence is admissible at a military tribunal in most cases. If the statements were made after Congress passed the 2005 ban on coercive interrogation tactics, the evidence is admissible only if a military judge finds that "the interrogation methods used to obtain the statement do not violate the cruel, unusual, or inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution."
The first draft of this legislation said that defendants could "examine and respond" to all of the evidence against them at a military tribunal. Now it says only that defendants can "respond" to all evidence. The full implications of this phrase aren't entirely clear. Defense lawyers will likely argue that defendants can't respond to evidence they haven't been able to examine.
Hearsay evidence is generally acceptable at military tribunals. A judge has to rule that the evidence is reliable and relevant to the trial.