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Supremes axe Gitmo kangaroo courts

Fair trials prove stubbornly popular

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The US Supreme Court has axed a pillar of the Bush Administration's national security strategy by insisting that prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba not be subjected to the kangaroo courts, otherwise known as "military tribunals," that the Bushies have attempted to use in disposing of terror suspects.

The Court had previously ruled that Gitmo prisoners are entitled to minimum levels of legal process, but neglected to specify any particulars beyond the implicit standard that prisoners are permitted to challenge their detention in the federal court system. Today's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld spells out several such requirements.

In a nutshell, the Court demands that the standards applying to courts martial, as spelled out in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), be applied. This will require prisoners to be present at their trials, and give them an opportunity to challenge evidence against themselves. The current military tribunal approach had permitted secret evidence to be presented without the defendant's knowledge, hence without any hope of challenging it. It had also suspended habeas corpus, or the right of a defendant to be present at his trial. The majority decision was written by Justice John Paul Stevens.

Within minutes of the ruling, during a press conference, the President graciously offered to "consider" the Supreme Court's ruling. And within the hour, White House flack Tony Snow hastened to re-write history, claiming that the decision had "emphasized" the need for Congress to grant the President the authority he has thus far been wielding illegally. Actually, the issue came up most notably in a concurring decision by Justice Stephen Breyer, rather than the majority opinion. Nevertheless, Congressional rubber-stamping was "the most important" issue in the ruling, Snow explained.

It's a complicated decision, with numerous dissenting opinions, Snow allowed. Therefore it will take some time for the White House to "figure out what it all means." Which is code for "we're going to interpret it in our own way and act on it however we please."

But for now, at least, the White House has found its crucial sound-bite incantation: "Congressional authorization." We will be hearing nothing else from the right-wing punditry until a popular myth is established to the effect that the Republican-controlled Congress need only ram through a bill legitimizing the existing system, to which the President can even append "signing statements" indicating his determination to ignore any language he dislikes.

Literally minutes after Snow's performance, US Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican, South Carolina) obediently offered to introduce anti-terror legislation suspending habeas corpus and authorizing the so-called military tribunals that the Supremes have just ruled against. He said that Congress needs only to "bless" the kangaroo courts favored by the Bushies, and all will be well at Camp Delta.

In the near term, we will see a media blitz with the phrase "Congressional authorization" repeated ad nauseam, culminating in a hastily-drafted bill rammed through the House, plus a slightly more intelligent version making slower progress through the Senate, to be reconciled in Conference Committee and endorsed by the President with a classic "signing statement" indicating his profound contempt for the very laws that he swore an oath to execute faithfully.

It's clear that the Bush Administration reads the Constitution of the United States with a contemptuous and very selective eye. It finds within it a plethora of concomitant rights for itself, such as the right to deny trials to so-called "enemy combatants," to torture foreign captives, and to spy on innocent US citizens without a warrant.

All of these activities are expressly forbidden by the Constitution.

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