Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Congressional Response

I haven't posted in a long time, and I'm sorry for that. Just thought I'd toss this up there. Here's an e-mail I sent to both of my senators, Lautenberg and Menendez, about 2 months ago:

Senator Lautenberg,

I would like to know how you justify, in good conscience, voting in favor of a bill that grants the President the sole power to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions, denies the Courts the rights to consider the Conventions in civil proceedings, and strips prisoners of the rights of habeas corpus so long enshrined as part of our nation's foundation.

This bill is repugnant not just to me, but to the ideals which we profess, as a nation, to hold. I am deeply disappointed that both of the senators that reprsent my state would have voted for this atrocious legislation.

Tim Fargus...

For Senator Menendez, I simply changed the name. Anyway, I recently received an e-mail response from Senator Lautenberg, and I'll reproduce it here in full:

Dear Mr. Fargus :

Thank you for contacting me about the Military Commissions Act (S. 3930). I appreciate hearing your views on this important issue.

The United States has apprehended hundreds of terror suspects, and President Bush has kept them at secret CIA prisons and at a military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay , Cuba . In November of 2001, President Bush unilaterally issued an order setting up a flawed system of military trials for these suspects.

Not surprisingly, in June 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that the trial system set up by President Bush in 2001 violated military justice law and the Geneva Conventions, and that any future attempts to authorize these trials will need an Act of Congress. Unless and until that occurred, detainees at Guantanamo Bay would remain without charge and without trial.

In September 2006, President Bush sent Congress another flawed proposal to establish military tribunals. Many Senators, including John McCain (R-AZ), John Warner (R-VA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), opposed the Administration's proposal, as did I. After weeks of negotiations, a new measure was drafted. While far from perfect, this new version provided a framework that could move these cases to trial and avoid a continuation of the current state of limbo that has kept detainees at
Guantanamo without a trial.

The primary objective of the Military Commissions Act is to set up the framework under which detainees can be charged and brought to trial. The military commissions will include elements of the law and rules of evidence used in general courts-martial by the military, in addition to specific requirements laid out in the legislation. I supported several amendments to the bill on the Senate floor. For example, I sought to restore the right of habeus corpus to allow detainees to challenge the factual and legal reasons for their detention. I was disappointed that this amendment failed by a vote of 48-51; however, I anticipate the Supreme Court will review this provision in the bill expeditiously.

The Military Commissions Act also clarifies what interrogation methods can and cannot be used against detainees. In 2005, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act (the "McCain Amendment"), which applies to all detainees under the control of the United States. It prohibits cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, as those terms are defined by our U.S. Constitution.

The Military Commissions Act specifically clarifies what our obligations are under international law. These obligations are governed by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which set out minimum standards for the treatment of detainees. The Act explicitly bans nine offenses, including torture, cruel or inhuman treatment, and intentionally causing serious bodily injury. These are considered "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions and are punishable in the United States by death or imprisonment for life or a term of years. The President must also publicly declare what the Administration deems to be "non-grave" or lesser offenses under the Geneva Conventions. This mandate will require the President to spell out what interrogation standards are being used at Guantanamo, which will be a major step toward accountability for this Administration.

This legislation is not perfect, and I regret that efforts to amend it on the Senate floor were unsuccessful. But it has been more than five years since 9/11, and hundreds of detainees are being kept at Guantanamo Bay without charge and without trial. It is time to set the rules and move these trials forward. I will vigorously monitor how this and future Administrations apply this legislation and the requirements it sets forth, and I will not hesitate to speak out when the executive branch strays from the requirements of the law. In addition, I intend to work with my colleagues in the 110th Congress, which begins in January, to conduct strong oversight of this program and consider changes to this law to address any deficiencies.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me, and I hope you will continue to do so in the future.

Sincerely, Senator Frank Lautenberg

My thoughts? Well, first off, I appreciate the response. I know it took a while, but I'm sure the volume of requests coming into Congressional offices must be huge, especially since the advent of electronic media.

Now, I can understand the Senator's reasoning here. He's talking about the act being better than nothing, and that taking baby steps is better than doing nothing. I can understand that and could even almost get behind it, if it weren't for the provisions in the bill that give the President the authority to redefine the Geneva Conventions.

I'm a little more hopeful that the Senator's choice will be vindicated in the coming months with the Democratic majority in Congress, but all the same, I would like to have seen this act scuttled, and Senators Warner, Graham and McCain exposed for the political opportunists and showmen that they are.