Rep. Bob Barr is seeking congressional hearings to examine some “sweeping” legal changes unilaterally put in place by the Bush administration to combat terrorism, which he says he finds “very disturbing.”
Specifically, Mr. Barr is concerned about a change that allows, without a court order, monitoring of attorney-client communications of prison inmates suspected of links to terrorists, and another that would authorize foreign terrorism suspects to be tried by military tribunals.
The conservative Georgia Republican joined eight liberal Democrats in a news conference yesterday on Capitol Hill to protest the White House rulings.
“We stand on the verge of a civil liberties calamity in this country,” Rep. John Conyers Jr., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in opening the news conference.
The Michigan Democrat accused the White House of having “taken a series of constitutionally dubious actions that place the executive branch in the untenable role of legislator, prosecutor, judge and jury.”
Other Democrats who took part were Reps. Maxine Waters and Zoe Logren of California, Jerrold Nadler of New York, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, Robert C. Scott of Virginia and Melvin Watt of North Carolina.
Turning to Mr. Barr, Mrs. Jackson-Lee said, “I think the statement being made today is that civil liberties and justice have no claim of any particular political party.”
The primary focus of yesterday’s news conference was a White House executive order, which President Bush signed Tuesday, that allows special military courts to try suspected terrorists who are not U.S. citizens. The military tribunals would have jurisdiction over foreigners designated as terrorists by the president, whether they are picked up in Afghanistan, other countries or in the United States.
Unlike trials in U.S. federal courts, which are a matter of public record, proceedings before military courts would be secret. This would prevent the disclosure of sensitive information, such as how the government gathers intelligence.
Also, defendants convicted by military courts would not have the opportunity for lengthy appeals of verdicts, and the military panel could order the death penalty for those convicted.
While many Democrats oppose the executive order, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, says he believes it has merit.
“We have got to do everything we possibly can do to track down the terrorists and bring them to justice. I do think we have to be concerned about constitutional prerogatives and liberties here that may be at stake, but the bottom line is, we have to find a way to make this work,” Mr. Daschle said in an interview on CNN’s “Newsnight.”
But Mr. Barr is clearly worried. “The scope of this executive order takes your breath away, if you read the details of it,” he said.
The Georgia Republican noted that the “ink is really not even dry” on legislation passed by Congress at the request of Mr. Bush shortly after the September 11 attacks to give the Justice Department more capability to track down, catch and hold suspected terrorists. Mr. Barr said some in Congress himself included felt that measure went “farther than it really needed to meet the terrorist threat.” Nevertheless, he said, lawmakers supported it to give the administration “some necessary tools with which to fight terrorism.”
But now the White House is “taking onto itself vast new powers,” Mr. Barr said.
Because of his concerns about these latest changes, Mr. Barr said he sent a letter yesterday to Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asking that he hold “immediate hearings” on this matter.
Hearings should be held, said Mr. Barr, “to look into both the substance and the process whereby these changes to the most fundamental of all criminal procedures for example, habeas corpus are being sought to be implemented.”
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, said Mr. Barr is in the minority among House Republicans. “The Republican conference overwhelmingly supports” having accused terrorists tried by military tribunals, he said yesterday.
But Jeffrey Deist, spokesman for Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, said Mr. Paul believes “those responsible for the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center” should be tried in federal courts, as were the defendants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
In New York yesterday, an independent U.N. legal specialist slammed the concept.
In a letter to the Bush administration, Dato Param Cumaraswamy yesterday expressed concern about the absence of a guarantee to legal representation and the failure to establish a review process or the right to appeal. He also questioned the exclusion of the jurisdiction of any other courts.
But former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, now in private practice in Washington, says he sees some advantages to a military tribunal.
“There can’t be any constitutional objections, since the Supreme Court approved the use of military tribunals during World War II. And there’s obviously some advantage to holding a swift trial in secret with the availability of the death penalty,” said Mr. Thornburgh, chairman of the Washington Legal Foundation’s legal advisory committee.
However, Elisa Massimino, director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said, “We have real concerns about this. There is an adversarial criminal justice system in the United States to make sure you convict the right people. This system was arrived at through the democratic process. It seems as if the administration has forgotten that when you convict the wrong people, the bad guys go free.”
The State Department yesterday defended Mr. Bush’s order.
“The order contemplates full and fair trials, and our focus is on justice,” the State Department’s deputy spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters. “What the president is doing is creating another option. He has to designate any individual who would be brought to trial before such a tribunal. We have full confidence that any military commission would protect the rights of any defendants.”
Betsy Pisik and Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.