Getting the Truck Out of the Ditch

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 15 2008 2:26 PM

Getting the Truck Out of the Ditch

Ben's very useful post throws the preventive-detention gauntlet right back at me—and that's fair enough. I'd suggested his approach conflates two separate problems: (1) getting the truck out of the detention ditch at Gitmo (its own unique mess), and (2) figuring out what kind of detention policy and laws the United States needs going forward to effectively address the terrorist threat (a threat I don't for a moment deny). Herewith, the first of two posts in response. This one proposes a getting-the-truck-out plan. The next will talk about trying to avoid the next mess.

I take our collective starting point at Gitmo to be a consensus that it's time to shut it down (given a host of ill effects I could detail, but I think we're all now onboard here). Best I can tell, at Gitmo today there are three broad categories of detainees whose situations needs resolution: folks who've done something wrong who should be tried; folks who the current administration has cleared for release but who have no place suitable to go (because, for example, they face torture in their home country or because their home country won't take them back); and folks who haven't demonstrably (or at all) done anything wrong but who we're understandably loathe to release because, for example, they've said, "I'm a member of al-Qaida and I can't wait to get back to the jihad."


For folks needing trial, I've recommended either courts martial or federal prosecution. The current military commissions are hopelessly (and rightly) tarnished as illegitimate, and any effort to revise or fix them will (a) take even more time (in no one's interest) and (b) not likely succeed in overcoming legitimacy problems. Will courts martial and/or federal prosecution face special challenges in these cases, like protecting classified information? No doubt, but for reasons I've alluded to in previous posts like this one  or this one , I think these existing institutions far more accustomed, better suited, and demonstrably able to handle such questions. Might there be acquittals at such trials? Yes. Might KSM be acquitted? Ben, I'll up the ante and buy you a steak (or high-priced vegetarian) dinner of your choice if he is.

The folks who should be free but haven't yet been released (the Yemenis, the Uighurs, etc.) pose fundamentally a diplomatic problem. The existing law is clear on our obligation not to return them to places they're likely to be tortured. So we and our allies must find a suitable alternative home. I do not wish to undersell the difficulty and complexity here by calling it a "diplomatic" problem. I also would not wish to let the administration and its advocates believe that our treatment of our allies (and the rest of the world) in the past seven years has not made the resolution of this task substantially more difficult than it would/should have been. Because of the latter point, I think it is reasonable to expect we might see some diplomatic movement in any next administration—particularly a next administration that is visibly taking a series of real, unilateral steps to restore our credibility on matters of the rule of law, our interest in and respect for international partnerships, and our recognition that we can't combat terrorism without the help of our friends. Some of our allies have been talking a good human rights game; come January 2009, it'll be time for them to pony up. At least that's where I'd start. And while everyone's chatting it through (speaking of concrete, unilateral steps), I'd take these folks (and the folks I'm about to discuss) out of Gitmo and house them in a high-security military prison in the continental United States.

And what about the toughest group: those who have said they despise us but haven't yet demonstrably done anything about it (or anything that was prosecutable at the time they were captured)? Ben is right to note that classification of information—and, I would add, chronic unreliability of information from Gitmo that has been released—makes it impossible to identify from the outside how large a group this is. But let's assume it is not a null set. Here's why past acts matter. Had we given these folks Article 5 hearings in the first instance under the law of war, and kept them in Afghanistan (for those among this set who were captured thereabouts), I believe we could have lawfully continued to hold them in Afghanistan with modest periodic review until the conclusion of that conflict (which, contrary to part of the International Committee of the Red Cross' position, I believe can be understood to continue as a matter of U.S. and international law). I'm not crazy about how much leeway for lengthy detention the law of war provides here, but that's my reading of the law, at least with respect to those caught up in the armed conflict in/with Afghanistan.

But we didn't do that. And we've also now made Gitmo an international clearinghouse for (at least a handful of) folks we've picked up all over the world, like the Boumediene petitioners themselves, who are at best only arguably involved in an armed conflict within the meaning of international law and at best only arguably covered (sorry, Marty) by Congress' own AUMF. And most of all, we now have a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court saying the Constitution entitles these people to petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Unless the next administration comes in and, upon actually reviewing the evidence, concludes some of these people should simply be released or (lawfully) transferred elsewhere for continued detention (and to me there is every incentive for a new administration to look at these cases closely and as publicly as possible), habeas must go forward. The government will put forward its best evidence. The detainees, represented by counsel, will put forward theirs. And the courts will decide in each case as a matter of substantive law (right, Ben?) whether their particular detention was authorized under U.S. and/or international law. The courts are best suited to this, in my view, because there was applicable law on the books at the time these men were detained, Congress has had two (unsuccessful) shots at constitutionally clarifying it, and the courts, in keeping with their constitutional charge, are accustomed to saying what the law is every day.

It seems as likely as not that many of those who care most deeply about human rights will be disappointed in the ultimate outcome of at least some of these cases. The AUMF as defined by extant international humanitarian and human rights laws, and as limited by constitutional due process, leaves room for a fair bit of detention (as even the ICRC understands). But I'd bet something even more than a steak dinner that if we do all this, we'll be (rightly) taking a lot less flack from the international community. We'll hang onto those who are really and truly dangerous (and might even have time to think about whether a little more investigation might help build a criminal case against them). And we'll have a clearer path to designing a vastly more sensible plan going forward.

So that's where I'm at today. But as ever, I'd be pleased to be learn more.

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