The New York Times
The Democrats' pledge
Sat May 12, 2007 01:21

The Democrats' pledge

May 11, 2007

The New York Times said the following in an editorial:

Last year, congressional Democrats allowed the Bush administration to ram through one of the worst laws in the nation's history — the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This year, the Democrats pledged to use their new majority to begin repairing the profound damage the law has done to the nation's justice system and global image.

But there are disturbing signs their pledge may fall victim to the same tactical political calculations and Bush administration propagandizing that allowed this scandalous law to pass in the first place.

Rewriting the act should start with one simple step: Restoring to prisoners of the war on terror the fundamental right to challenge their detention in a real court. So far, promised measures to restore habeas corpus have yet to see the light of day, and they may remain buried unless Democratic leaders make them a priority and members of both parties vote on principle, not out of fear of attack ads.

President Bush turned habeas corpus into a partisan issue by declaring that the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, even innocent ones, do not deserve a hearing. Lawmakers who objected were painted as friends of terrorists.

But let's be clear. There is nothing "conservative" or "tough on terrorism" in selectively stripping people of their rights. Suspending habeas corpus is an extreme notion on the radical fringes of democratic philosophy.

As four retired military chief prosecutors — from the Navy, the Marines and the Army — pointed out to Congress, holding prisoners without access to courts merely feeds al-Qaida's propaganda machine, increases the risk to the American military and sets a precedent by which other governments could justify detaining American civilians without charges or appeal.

Consider some of the other wild-eyed liberals calling on Congress to restore habeas corpus: William Sessions, director of the FBI under the first President Bush; David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union; the National Association of Evangelicals; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, founded by the Rev. Billy Graham; a long list of other evangelical leaders and scholars; and nearly two dozen sitting and retired federal judges.

There are a half-dozen bills in the House and the Senate that would restore habeas corpus. But the Democratic leadership has not found a way to bring the issue to a vote. The first vehicle is the Defense Department's budget authorization bill. But Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, chose not to include habeas corpus in his baseline version of the measure, known as the chairman's mark, which will be taken up by the committee on Wednesday.

We hope habeas will be added to the bill by the committee, or that other sponsors of measures to restore the ancient right, including Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Jerrold Nadler of New York, and Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, will find ways to bring their bills to a vote.

The Democratic majority has a long list of wrongs to right from six years of Bush's leadership. We are sympathetic to their concerns about finding a way to revive habeas corpus that won't die in committee or be subject to a presidential veto of a larger bill. But lawmakers sometimes have to stand on principle and trust the voters to understand.

This is one of those times.

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