Thursday, August 03, 2006

White House seeks new foreign detainee trials

White House seeks new foreign detainee trials
By Vicki Allen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration on Wednesday said it would be willing to use much of the military justice code to try foreign terrorism suspects, but Democrats said its plan still fell short of meeting the U.S. Supreme Court's demands for fair trials.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the administration was still drafting its plan, but that it would propose trying enemy combatants based on military court martial procedures -- although with a number of key changes.

Those include admitting hearsay evidence, limiting rights against self-incrimination before a trial, and limiting defendants' access to classified information.

Gonzales also told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration's current thinking was to allow testimony obtained by coercion if it was reliable and useful.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat, said those provisions would leave the new trial system vulnerable to another rebuke by the Supreme Court, which in June struck down the system of tribunals that President George W. Bush established following the September 11 attacks.

Admitting coerced testimony could allow interrogation techniques such as "water-boarding" to simulate drowning, use of intimidating military dogs and other methods that top military lawyers have said are inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military rules, Levin said.

Gonzales offered the administration's plan as Congress crafts a process to try terrorism suspects, who are mostly held in prison at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


The court said Bush's tribunals lacked congressional authorization and did not meet U.S. military or international justice standards.

That system would have allowed defendants to be barred from their own trials, limited their access to evidence, and allowed testimony from interrogations that critics said amounted to torture.

In a testy exchange, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who was tortured as a war prisoner in Vietnam, asked whether testimony obtained by illegal or inhumane means could be used.

After a long pause, Gonzales said that would depend on how inhumane was defined. He argued that the Geneva Convention's prohibition on "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment" was too vague and needed to be defined by Congress.

Gonzales said Congress should provide a list of offenses that would constitute crimes under the Geneva Convention's requirement for humane treatment of prisoners. He said that would clarify rules for U.S. interrogators, who would be subject to felony charges for violations.

Human rights advocates contend the White House wants to more narrowly define and weaken the humane treatment standard.

Gonzales said the administration had no intention of using the proposed military commission system to try U.S. citizens or prisoners of war.

He said the proposal calls for having at least five members on commissions instead of three in the system the court rejected, and death penalty cases would require a unanimous vote. It also would have a military appeals process, and convicted detainees could appeal to the Washington, D.C., Circuit.