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Judges to Congress: Don't Legislate Indefinite Detention

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For months now, certain commentators and legislators have been arguing that Congress needs to pass a new law authorizing the indefinite detention without charge or trial of suspected terrorists and their supporters.

On its face, that would seem to violate some basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. But the U.S. government is already detaining hundreds of suspects captured abroad at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The question is whether Congress should expand that authority and define it in more detail.

Writers such as Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution and lawmakers such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina argue that even though hundreds of people have been detained over the last eight years at Guantanamo Bay, the law that justifies their detention or mandates their release isn't clear, and Congress needs to step in and make new rules.

In fact, as a new report issued today by 16 former federal judges makes clear, that's nonsense. The people in the best position to decide when military detention is legal are already doing just that. The new report, published by Human Rights First and the Constitution Project, explains exactly how that process is working -- and demonstrates that it's actually working very well. Responding to a series of habeas corpus petitions, where Guantanamo detainees have asked the federal court to review the legality of their detentions, federal district court judges in Washington, D.C., have already issued written opinions concerning 50 different detainees that set out the legal standard for indefinite wartime detention, and which cases do and do not meet it.

The claim by Wittes and Graham that judges are somehow overstepping their bounds and usurping the role of Congress reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the federal courts and judges work. In fact, the courts are doing just what they're supposed to do: interpret the law.

The reason judges are so well-situated to explain the contours of U.S. detention authority is because, according to judicial rulings, the right to detain arises out of existing laws, including the Authorization for Use of Military Force against Terrorists, or AUMF, passed by Congress in 2001; the traditional law of war; and the U.S. Constitution.

Traditionally, a government at war can detain fighting members of the enemy's forces, under humane conditions, until the war is over. Although that authority is less clear when the government is fighting a loose coalition of insurgent forces around the world rather than another country, the Supreme Court has said that at least in some circumstances, pursuant to the AUMF, the United States can detain enemy fighters seized on the battlefield.

It's the Supreme Court's rulings on the subject, combined with the law of war and the mandates of the U.S. Constitution, that highly experienced federal judges have been applying to the habeas corpus cases that have come before them. Applying those rulings, they've developed a clear and consistent body of law that explains what kind of evidence the government needs to have amassed against a suspected insurgent to justify his military detention.

Under the D.C. District Court's rulings, for example, Fouad Al Rabiah, a 43-year-old, 240-pound, Kuwaiti Airways executive with a long history of volunteering for Islamic charities who'd been discharged from compulsory military service in Kuwait due to a knee injury, and who suffered from high blood pressure and chronic back pain, did not meet the requirement of being "part of" or having "substantially supported" al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces. Although seized while attempting to leave Afghanistan in 2001, by the time of Al Rabiah's hearing, even the government had decided the witnesses who claimed he'd helped al Qaeda weren't credible. The government's own interrogators didn't believe his "confessions," which the court determined had been coerced and were "entirely incredible."

On the other hand, Fawzi Al Odah, also Kuwaiti, did meet the law's detention standards. The same judge found that he'd attended a Taliban training camp, learned to use an AK-47, traveled with other armed fighters on a route common to jihadists, and took directions from Taliban leaders - all making it more likely than not that he was a member of Taliban fighting forces.

Still, despite the courts' careful analysis in these cases, Congress could step in and write its own new law on indefinite detention. But how can any one statute possibly address all the vastly different factual scenarios, many spanning several countries and decades, that constitute the government's claims that any particular individual is detainable? What's more, any new law will still have to meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, and the Supreme Court gets the ultimate say on that. Any new statute passed by Congress, then, would likely be challenged as soon as it's applied, causing more confusion about what the law really is until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on that new statute several years later.

The federal judges of the D.C. District Court and Court of Appeals are already way ahead of that game. In addition to the trial court opinions, the appellate court recently issued its own opinion setting out the law of detention and the government's constitutional authority. That decision may be appealed to the Supreme Court, whose opinion would set out the binding standard that every judge and future U.S. administration will have to follow.

The upshot of all this is that if Congress legislates some new detention standard now, it will actually take a lot longer to get a clearly-defined and binding law that guides the government than it would if Congress just let the courts continue to play the role they're supposed to: deciding the legality of government detention.

Wittes, Graham and others may secretly be hoping that Congress will legislate in this area anyway and try to expand the government's indefinite detention authority beyond Guantanamo Bay to reach even suspects arrested on U.S. soil. But that would create a whole new constitutional firestorm, resulting in exactly the opposite of what they say they're after: a clear and reliable statement of the law.

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