Washington Fights Over What to Do with Foreign “Enemy Combatants”

The battle over how to carry on the “War on Terror” continues in Washington, apparently along party lines.  As discussion heats up over the newest $683 billion defense bill, both sides are trying to make their case for how the funds should be used, particularly regarding the detention and trial of terror suspects.

By and large, Republicans reject the Obama administration’s idea of holding suspected terrorists in U.S. facilities and trying them in U.S. courts.  Their rationale is simply that “unlawful enemy combatants” should be tried in military tribunals.  The argument has also been made that hosting such trials in the U.S. would pose major security concerns.

Not surprisingly, the White House is fighting back against such claims.  Donna Cassata of the Associated Press writes:

“The administration insists that lawmakers are trying to tie the hands of the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents after they’ve succeeded in killing bin Laden in May and al-Awlaki in Yemen last week, delivering two body blows to al-Qaida. Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat and that the administration is being too rigid in ignoring viable options like military commissions.”

According to John Brennan, chief of counter-terror for Obama: “We have established a practical, flexible, results-driven approach that maximizes our intelligence collection and preserves our ability to prosecute dangerous individuals.”

The real issue to both top Republicans and Democrats seems to be the way terror suspects are to be detained – Guantanamo Bay or in U.S. facilities?

House Republican Lindsey Graham pointed out,  “We have to have a detention system that allows the warfighter an option other than killing a terrorist. If you captured someone tomorrow, where would you put him? The only available jail is Guantanamo Bay.”

What is fascinating about the entire discussion, however, is the short-term memory loss on both sides of the aisle.  Where was this discussion last week?  Now that a budgetary issue is reaching the table, everyone is suddenly concerned about how and where to detain terror suspects.  But, where was the concern for detention and trial when Obama gave the order for the drone attacks in Yemen that killed two American citizens suspected of terrorism?

Wouldn’t it be far more honest to admit that Guantanamo Bay has become an irrelevant issue for most of Washington now that we can even casually take out U.S. citizens, if we are pretty sure they are guilty?

Though his words are troubling, at least Tim Griffin, a House Republican from Arkansas, is honest: “I applaud everybody involved in killing these terrorists of late. We’ve been seeking them out and killing them for over a decade and we need to continue.  I don’t see how that relates to (federal) courts. The way it’s currently constituted is working just fine” (as cited by Cassata).

Both parties are debating what rights to extend to foreign terror suspects, while blatantly ignoring the rights of Americans suspected of the same crimes!

When both Democrats and Republicans miss what the Constitution and Bill of Rights obviously grants to Americans, what hope is there that they will solve what to do with foreign suspects?

It is the strangest of all twists to see that the assumption of both parties is that foreign combatants deserve a trial (either in federal court or military tribunal) while American suspects deserve to be “droned.”

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4 thoughts on “Washington Fights Over What to Do with Foreign “Enemy Combatants”

  1. When if ever do the rights americans are constitutionally entitled to end? if they commit terrorist acts then go off to a terrorist camps overseas and begin training others to attack america does that then make them enemy combatants? Are they not at that point enemy combatants that happen to be american citizens, but because of their actions knowingly forfeited their rights?

  2. Good questions Ethan. We have to remember a couple of things. First of all, the government cannot revoke citizenship simply because someone has broken the law – even serious ones. In fact, it is their standing as citizens that enables the government to try them according to the law.

    Committing a terrorist act did not cause our government to simply shoot Jared Loughner or Timothy McVeigh. We even went after John Wilkes Booth to arrest him (he was shot in the attempt to arrest). So, I certainly see no way whatsoever that a man who was never charged with any crime and we don’t know of any real evidence that he committed terrorist acts – just accusations.

    The last thing to consider is that even enemy combatants have rights and our own government is now haggling over how those rights are to be administered – military tribunals or federal courts? It is horribly troubling that they did not give even that consideration to 2 American citizens and simply bombed them instead. So, our government violated Article III, section 3 of the Constitution, as well as the 5th and 6th Amendments, but still want to argue about how to give due process to foreign combatants.

    Hope that answers your questions!

  3. Ethan, I think your first question is a good one. Brian, in your view, do the rights granted to American citizens go with them no matter how far they move out of the country, no matter how hostile their actions, no matter what declarations of war they make, and no matter if they never intend to live as American citizens at peace with other Americans?

  4. The rights of citizenship are the very things that also keep citizens accountable to the rule of law. Citizenship carries both rights and responsibilities. If an American citizen commits treason, as defined in the Constitution, everyone knows what is supposed to happen. He is to be charged, arrested, faced with witnesses and evidence in a trial, and either be convicted (based on at least two witnesses or confession in open court) or acquitted.

    Now, I have no problem with our government tracking down all enemies, foreign and/or domestic. They swear to do so. But, they also swear to uphold the Constitution and I think, if they only do one or the other, we are in serious trouble. Right now, our government is trampling the Constitution in the name of protecting us, which violates both our rights and our safety.

    “The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes.” — Thomas Paine

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