George W. Bush just announced that he is ordering 14 alleged terrorist leaders transferred from secret CIA prisons overseas to the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay. It's news to the extent that this is the first time that the Bush administration has officially acknowledged the existence of the secret prisons described by the Washington Post last year. But does the news mean much -- other than a change in location -- for the 14 detainees in question? That much isn't so clear.
At the same time that he's moving the detainees to Guantánamo, Bush is pushing Congress to adopt new rules for trying them once they're there. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down the president's plan for military tribunals at Guantánamo, holding that the tribunals, as Bush envisioned them, would violate the Geneva Conventions and weren't authorized by any act of Congress. To work around that ruling, the White House will ask Congress to authorize the tribunals and to adopt rules governing them. But as a Republican Senate aide tells Bloomberg, the rules the White House has in mind would allow the use of evidence obtained through coercion. They would also allow the tribunals to deny detainees access to evidence used against them if the administration deemed the evidence classified.
The Bush tribunal plan is drawing objections from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. As the Washington Post reports today, Sens. John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham are working on legislation that would ensure detainees the right -- which the Sixth Amendment would guarantee them in regular civil courts -- to see the evidence against them. As the Post explains, Warner, McCain and Graham believe that Bush's plan to deny detainees access to the evidence against them would "violate long-standing due-process standards and set a dangerous precedent for trials of captured U.S. military personnel." McCain tells the Associated Press: "I think it's important that we stand by 200 years of legal precedents concerning classified information because the defendant should have a right to know what evidence is being used."
The president and his supporters plainly see it differently. As Bill Frist prepares to push the Bush plan as part of a flurry of terrorism-related measures in the run-up to the November elections, an aide to the Senate majority leader says it's a "dangerous idea that terrorists and those around them automatically receive classified information about the means and methods used in the war on terror."
We wonder what Bush and Frist would think if an American soldier were tried and convicted based on evidence that was obtained through torture -- evidence that he was never allowed to challenge or explain away because he was never allowed to see it in the first place. We hope they never have to ponder that sort of injustice. But if they do, they'll have left themselves, and the rest of us, with precious little room to complain.