Whether politicians considered Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detainees a victory for terrorists or for the Constitution was largely determined by their substantive stance on the war in Iraq.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said the decision will “hamper the ability to prevent a massive murder of our civilians.”
“This is a setback for those who have made battling the war on terrorism their first priority,” said Mr. Rohrabacher, a supporter of the war since the earliest post-Sept. 11 debates on overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, called the ruling “a stunning repudiation of the hubris and legal contortions of the Bush administration.”
“The Supreme Court has reaffirmed what we are all taught from grammar school on: that the United States is a nation of laws and that our Constitution and Bill of Rights must be respected,” said Mr. Markey, who has voted against funding the war and favors an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
The reactions of both parties’ presumed presidential nominees also mirrored their general stances on the Iraq war.
Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, said the decision “ensures we can protect our nation and bring terrorists to justice, while also protecting our core values.”
“This is an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law and rejecting the false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus,” he said in a statement on his campaign site. Mr. Obama has emphasized repeatedly on the campaign stump that he opposed to war, unlike many congressional Democrats, even before it began.
Campaigning in Boston, Sen. John McCain told reporters he worries about giving habeas corpus rights to enemy combatants, but the former Vietnam War prisoner also emphasized his longstanding opposition to torture, saying he supports closing the detention center at Guantanamo.
“These are unlawful combatants, they are not American citizens and I think we should pay attention to [Chief Justice John G.] Roberts’ opinion in this decision,” Mr. McCain said, referring to the chief justice’s dissent. “But it is a decision that the Supreme Court has made. Now we need to move forward. As you know I always favored closing Guantanamo Bay and I still think we ought to do that.”
The Arizona Republican supported President Bush’s troop surge when the Iraq war was at the depths of its popularity, staking his presidential bid on his hawkish stance and saying he would “rather lose an election than lose a war.”
While lawmakers and candidates readily weighed in on the landmark decision, the agencies charged with fighting terrorists said little.
The Department of Defense referred calls to the Department of Justice, which released a statement saying, the agency is “disappointed” with the decision, but added that military tribunal trials will go forward.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court decided detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge the legality of their incarcerations in federal courts using a process known as habeas corpus. Previously, those military tribunals were the only courts that could hear detainees’ cases.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement authorities have said there are about 270 detainees at Guantanamo, including about a dozen men who have been described as top al Qaeda operatives, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“Enemies of the United States committed to attacking America and killing Americans who have been captured on the battlefield and designated alien enemy combatants are entitled to the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention, not the Constitution,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and a supporter of the war.
Critics worried that moving the cases to federal court could lead to classified evidence becoming public and also argued that the ruling puts matters of national security in the hands of unelected judges.
“I ask those who laud today´s decision as a victory whether they would want Osama bin Laden, if captured, to be processed by our civilian judicial system?” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.
Proponents dismissed concerns about classified evidence becoming public, arguing the courts have measures to prevent that from happening and that the right of habeas corpus is fundamental in any case.
“This decision echoes earlier court opinions that have solidified our constitutional system of checks and balances,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that would likely oversee any new laws on handling the detainees. “The administration has rolled back essential rights that have long guided our nation´s conscience.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, called the ruling “a resounding affirmation for the rule of law and a rejection of the president’s sweeping claims of power.
“We all agree that terrorists must be brought to justice, but we must not abandon the very system of justice we are protecting in the process.” he said.