Sunday, October 24


This is long, but it's a revealing look inside the workings of the post-9/11 Bush administration. As has been reported about so many other critical issues, the shrill, panicked and Cheney-pleasing voices of a small group of neocons and their youthful and relatively inexperienced minions were favored in the White House over the more reasoned, deliberative arguments raised by experienced foreign policy and military justice professionals.

But three years later, not a single terrorist has been prosecuted. Of the roughly 560 men being held at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, only 4 have been formally charged. Preliminary hearings for those suspects brought such a barrage of procedural challenges and public criticism that verdicts could still be months away. And since a Supreme Court decision in June that gave the detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court, the Pentagon has stepped up efforts to send home hundreds of men whom it once branded as dangerous terrorists.

"We've cleared whole forests of paper developing procedures for these tribunals, and no one has been tried yet," said Richard L. Shiffrin, who worked on the issue as the Pentagon's deputy general counsel for intelligence matters. "They just ended up in this Kafkaesque sort of purgatory."

The story of how Guantánamo and the new military justice system became an intractable legacy of Sept. 11 has been largely hidden from public view.

But extensive interviews with current and former officials and a review of confidential documents reveal that the legal strategy took shape as the ambition of a small core of conservative administration officials whose political influence and bureaucratic skill gave them remarkable power in the aftermath of the attacks.
Military lawyers were largely excluded from that process in the days after Sept. 11. They have since waged a long struggle to ensure that terrorist prosecutions meet what they say are basic standards of fairness. Uniformed lawyers now assigned to defend Guantánamo detainees have become among the most forceful critics of the Pentagon's own system.
In devising the new system, many officials said they had Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda in mind. But in picking through the hundreds of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, military investigators have struggled to find more than a dozen they can tie directly to significant terrorist acts, officials said. While important Qaeda figures have been captured and held by the C.I.A., administration officials said they were reluctant to bring those prisoners before tribunals they still consider unreliable.
"What several of us were concerned about was due process," said John A. Gordon, a retired Air Force general and former deputy C.I.A. director who served as both the senior counterterrorism official and homeland security adviser on President Bush's National Security Council staff. "There was great concern that we were setting up a process that was contrary to our own ideals."
[emphasis mine]
Mr. Yoo noted that those actions could raise constitutional issues, but said that in the face of devastating terrorist attacks, "the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties." If the president decided the threat justified deploying the military inside the country, he wrote, then "we think that the Fourth Amendment
[ed. note: Constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure] should be no more relevant than it would be in cases of invasion or insurrection."
Military commissions, he thought, would give the government wide latitude to hold, interrogate and prosecute the sort of suspects who might be silenced by lawyers in criminal courts. They would also put the control over prosecutions squarely in the hands of the president.

The same ideas were taking hold in the office of Vice President Cheney, championed by his 44-year-old counsel, David S. Addington. At the time, Mr. Addington, a longtime Cheney aide with an indistinct portfolio and no real staff, was not well-known even in the government. But he would become legendary as a voraciously hard-working official with strongly conservative views, an unusually sharp pen and wide influence over military, intelligence and other matters. In a matter of months, he would make a mark as one of the most important architects of the administration's legal strategy against foreign terrorism.

Beyond the prosecutorial benefits of military commissions, the two lawyers saw a less tangible, but perhaps equally important advantage. "From a political standpoint," Mr. Flanigan said, "it communicated the message that we were at war, that this was not going to be business as usual."
With the White House in charge, officials said, the planning for tribunals moved forward more quickly, and more secretly. Whole agencies were left out of the discussion. So were most of the government's experts in military and international law.

The legal basis for the administration's approach was laid out on Nov. 6 in a confidential 35-page memorandum sent to Mr. Gonzales from Patrick F. Philbin, a deputy in the Legal Counsel's office. (Attorney General Ashcroft has refused recent Congressional requests for the document, but a copy was reviewed by The Times.)

The memorandum's plain legalese belied its bold assertions.

It said that the president, as commander in chief, has "inherent authority'' to establish military commissions without Congressional authorization. It concluded that the Sept. 11 attacks were "plainly sufficient" to warrant applying the laws of war.

Opening a debate that would later divide the administration, the memorandum also suggested that the White House could apply international law selectively. It stated specifically that trying terrorists under the laws of war "does not mean that terrorists will receive the protections of the Geneva Conventions or the rights that laws of war accord to lawful combatants."
The following day, the Army's judge advocate general, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig, hurriedly convened a meeting of senior military lawyers to discuss a response. The group worked through the Veterans Day weekend to prepare suggestions that would have moved the tribunals closer to existing military justice. But when the final document was issued that Tuesday, it reflected none of the officers' ideas, several military officials said. "They hadn't changed a thing," one official said.

In fact, while the military lawyers were pulling together their response, they were unaware that senior administration officials were already at the White House putting finishing touches on the plan. At a meeting that Saturday in the Roosevelt Room, Mr. Cheney led a discussion among Attorney General Ashcroft, Mr. Haynes of the Defense Department, the White House lawyers and a few other aides.
No ceremony accompanied the signing, and the order was released to the public that day without so much as a press briefing. But its historic significance was unmistakable.
The White House did its best to play down the drama, but criticism of the order was immediate and widespread.

Civil libertarians and some Congressional leaders saw an attempt to supplant the criminal justice system. Critics also worried about the concentration of power: The president or his proxies would define the crimes (often after an act had been committed); set the rules for trial; and choose the judges, juries and appellate panels.
Critics seized on complaints from abroad, including an announcement from the Spanish authorities that they would not extradite some terrorist suspects to the United States if they would face the tribunals. "We are the most powerful nation on earth," Mr. Leahy said. "But in the struggle against terrorism, we don't have the option of going it alone. Would these military tribunals be worth jeopardizing the cooperation we expect and need from our allies?"
Many of the Pentagon's uniformed lawyers were angered by the implication that the military would be used to deliver "rough justice" for the terrorists. The Uniform Code of Military Justice had moved steadily into line with the due-process standards of the federal courts, and senior military lawyers were proud and protective of their system. They generally supported using commissions for terrorists, but argued that the system would not be fair without greater rights for defendants.

"The military lawyers would from time to time remind the civilians that there was a Constitution that we had to pay attention to," said Admiral Guter, who, after retiring as the Navy judge advocate general, signed a "friend of the court" brief on behalf of plaintiffs in the Guantánamo Supreme Court case.
On Dec. 28, 2001, after officials settled on Guantánamo Bay, Mr. Philbin and Mr. Yoo told the Pentagon in a memorandum that it could make a "very strong" claim that prisoners there would be outside the purview of American courts. But the memorandum cautioned that a reasonable argument could also be made that Guantánamo "while not part of the sovereign territory of the United States, is within the territorial jurisdiction of a federal court." That warning would come back to haunt the administration.
The Gonzales memorandum suggested that the "new kind of war" Mr. Bush wanted to fight could hardly be reconciled with the "quaint" privileges that the Geneva Conventions gave to prisoners of war, or the "strict limitations" they imposed on interrogations.

Military lawyers disputed the idea that applying the conventions would necessarily limit interrogators to the name, rank and serial number of their captives. "There were very good reasons not to designate the detainees as prisoners of war, but the claim that they couldn't be interrogated was not one of them," Colonel Lietzau said.


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