Friday, September 08, 2006

US generals criticize Bush plan on terrorism trials

US generals criticize Bush plan on terrorism trials
By Kristin Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military's top legal officers on Thursday criticized a White House plan for military tribunals to try foreign terrorism suspects because it would allow convictions based on evidence never seen by the defendants.

The military judge advocates general, senior legal advisers to their branches of the armed forces, told Congress the plan failed to give suspects enough legal rights because it restricted their access to evidence.

However, a U.S. Justice Department official said some restrictions were necessary and justified.

The right to a full and fair hearing requires the accused have access to the evidence used to convict them, even if it is classified information, the military advisors told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

"I'm not aware of any situation in the world where there is a system of jurisprudence that is recognized by civilized people where an individual can be tried and convicted without seeing the evidence against him," said Brig. Gen. James Walker, U.S. Marine Corps staff judge advocate.

"I don't think the United States needs to become the first in that scenario," he said.

The Bush administration on Wednesday proposed legislation to create a system of military commissions to try what it calls "unlawful enemy combatants," including those accused of being al Qaeda and Taliban members.

Bush was forced to come up with a new way to try foreign terrorist suspects after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down the initial military tribunal system his administration set up for the prisoners, most of whom were captured in Afghanistan and are now held at Guantanamo Bay.

The new plan in many ways resembles the current U.S. system of military courts-martial for U.S. service members, where trials are presided over by a military judge and jurors come from the armed forces.

But the system proposed for suspected terrorists would treat classified information and hearsay evidence differently.

Under Bush's plan, hearsay evidence would be allowed at the judge's discretion.

The administration proposed that some sensitive information or classified would not be given to the defendants, but their attorneys would have access to it.

"In the midst of the current conflict, we simply cannot consider sharing with captured terrorists the highly sensitive intelligence that may be relevant to military commission prosecutions," Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department, told the committee.

The military officers said it was not good enough to share the information only with defendants' attorneys. But Bradbury said that despite those objections, Congress should not require the accused in all cases have access to classified evidence.

"It should be left up to the military judges in a case-by-case basis to protect the fairness of trials," he said.

U.S. military lawyers in recent years have resisted several steps taken by civilian leaders of the Bush administration related to detainees, including interrogation tactics and trial rules.

The commissions that are ultimately created will likely be used to prosecute some of the U.S. government's top terrorism suspects, including the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.