Senate Retains Limits on Detainees' Legal Rights The Senate reaches a temporary agreement on its position on the rights of detainees in the war on terror. The Senate decides to retain the military tribunal system for handling the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- but does rights of appeal to the federal courts.
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Senate Retains Limits on Detainees' Legal Rights

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Senate Retains Limits on Detainees' Legal Rights

Senate Retains Limits on Detainees' Legal Rights

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

After weeks of debate, today the Senate approved a far-ranging bill laying out the US defense policy for the coming year; in the end, the vote was 98-to-0. Among the bill's provisions, one calling on the Bush administration to report to Congress every quarter on the war in Iraq and whether US goals are being met. An attempt to set a timetable for withdrawing US troops was defeated.

SIEGEL: The Senate approved a provision limiting the legal rights of detainees picked up as the part of war on terror. It does not go as far as an earlier version that was being considered. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, opponents say it still severely limits court access for the hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The detainees provision was negotiated by a group of Senate Republicans and Democrats after South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham won approval last week of a measure blocking nearly all court access by detainees. Graham said it was necessary to limit what he called `frivolous lawsuits' filed by the detainees. The original amendment was roundly criticized as unconstitutional, so Graham agreed to slightly modify it so detainees will have a few legal avenues open.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): We're going to have court review. An enemy combatant will not be left at Guantanamo Bay without a court looking at whether or not they were properly characterized. We're doing it in a way consistent with the law of armed conflict, in an orderly way, and I am proud that we are because this is a war of values. We can win this war, ladies and gentlemen, without sacrificing our values. And part of our values is due process, even to the worst among us.

NAYLOR: Graham and other supporters of limiting the detainees' legal access argued they should be treated as prisoners of war, not as criminals with constitutional rights. The provision adopted by the Senate will allow detainees to challenge their status as an enemy combatant to a federal appeals court in Washington. Detainees who have been charged and tried by the military tribunals the Pentagon has established will also be able to appeal to the DC court. Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, who helped write the new language, says it will send a message to the Bush administration.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): We are going to have rules for the treatment of detainees, we're going to have regulations for the treatment of detainees and for their holding and for their trial and we are not going to just simply say--allow the executive branch to do whatever they want because that's the wrong message to the rest of the world and is not consisting with our Constitution and values.

NAYLOR: Other Democrats said the new provision doesn't go far enough. Calling it a `modest improvement,' New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman says it will mean little to most detainees being held by the US.

Senator JEFF BINGAMAN (Democrat, New Mexico): There are 500 people in Guantanamo; nine of them have actually been charged with something, and none of them have been tried as yet. So for the 491 of the 500, that provision is not relevant.

NAYLOR: Bingaman sponsored an amendment that would have given detainees the right to file suits under habeas corpus, which guarantees the right to appear in court and know what the charges are. That amendment was rejected. Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, who helped write the new language, says limiting the rights of the detainees is proper.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Prisoners of war are hardly ever charged with anything; they're simply held until the end of conflict. And they've never been given habeas corpus rights, for example, so this doesn't change anything in that regard.

NAYLOR: Neither the provision setting limited legal rights for the detainees, nor another outlawing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of the detainees is in the House version of the defense authorization measure, so it's unclear exactly what will emerge from negotiations between the two changes. What's more, the White House promises to veto any bill that sets any sort of standards for the treatment of detainees, arguing it limits the president's authority to wage war against terrorism. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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