After last week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing
on the legal status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the chair of the Committee,
Senator Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), says he plans to bring new legislation that
would create a detention commission to allow detainees to get a hearing on their
imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. The proposal would mark the first time that
Congress considers asserting its authority over the detainment of "enemy
combatants" who have been held without charge.
"There's an appropriate time for interrogation, but not unlimited,"
said Specter. "There has to be hearings of some sort and the question is
how to structure it."
Specter, who gave few specifics on what the detention commission would look
like, said his bill will be introduced within a few weeks and that he would
consult with the Defense Department before making it public. Still, Specter
asserts that Congress has the jurisdiction to set legal parameters on the detainment
and treatment of those being held at Guantanamo Bay.
"The Constitution says flat out that Congress has the authority and responsibility
to decide what kinds of processes we'll handle when people are captured on land
and sea," said Specter. "The Supreme Court was emphatic that that's
The White House has maintained full authority over the treatment of detainees,
and it's unlikely it would welcome Congress's involvement. If Specter mustered
up enough support in Congress for a detention commission, it could put Capitol
Hill on a collision course with the White House over whether the some 500 detainees
held at Guantanamo Bay should be allowed the rights of due process. Specter's
bill would need the president's signature to become law.
"It's hard to imagine, given the current structure of Congress and get
to support from the executive or risk a veto, how that legislation would end
up looking," said Eric Biel, senior counsel for Human Rights First, who,
nonetheless, welcomes Specter's involvement. "Congress has been derelict
in engaging in the kind of oversight that is their responsibility. It's basically
been a free-for-all for the administration."
While some Republican lawmakers have indicated support for some type of process
being created toward the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay,
the GOP leadership is not onboard. On Tuesday, House leaders prohibited Democratic
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) from bringing to the floor his amendment to the
defense authorization measure to create an independent commission, similar to
the 9/11 Commission, to investigate detainee abuse.
"What are they trying to hide?" asked House Democratic Minority Leader
Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Why do they not want the facts of what happened
there and what is the atmosphere that tolerated such activities, and why can't
we move on from this?"
The Republican leadership maintains that the some 10 internal investigations
within the Pentagon have adequately addressed the issue and that the low-level
soldiers involved in abuse have been punished. The Senate will consider its
own amendment calling for an independent investigation when it takes up the
armed forces authorization bill in two weeks.
"I think it's a matter that deserves study," said the chair of the
Senate Armed Service Committee, John Warner (R-Va.), who says he has not made
up his mind on whether a commission should be formed, though he appears to be
leaning against it.
"I think we've had a thorough, comprehensive series of investigations,"
said Warner. "I think it raises the question does someone independent have
to go redo all that work."
When asked if the investigations conducted lacked legitimacy because the Pentagon
was investigating itself, Warner responded, "The next thing you know the
government is going to be run by commissions, and that's not desirable."