A glance at the rap sheets for America’s top terrorist detainees will chill any reader. The government’s list of “high value” terrorism suspects include men who allegedly trained the 9/11 hijackers, plotted to destroy the tallest building on the West Coast with hijacked airplanes, and planned to poison America’s water supplies. Terrorists want to kill us and we need to stop them.
Yesterday, the Senate passed legislation that will set the rules for carrying out some of the most important business in the war on terror: the detention, questioning, and prosecution of terrorists. We’ve spent the last month focusing on security and this bill stands among the most important we passed.
The case for the bill is simple: Ever since 9/11, we’ve been at war with terrorists who seek to destroy our values, our freedoms, and our way of life. To defeat them, we need to reevaluate our safety and security continuously and update our laws to keep up with emerging threats. In the past five years, the Senate has passed multiple bills related to the War on Terror. But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.
Because al Qaeda and its ilk do not care how many innocent people die, our government needs to gain whatever information it can from terrorist suspects and, just as importantly, keep them out of circulation so that they can’t carry out additional attacks. These interrogations, in particular, are a challenge because many terrorists undergo years of psychological training on how to resist interrogation and withhold information about future attacks and plots.
Through information gained by interrogating terrorist detainees, we’ve thwarted numerous terrorist plots and captured hundreds of terrorists — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Earlier this year, however, the Supreme Court’s Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision raised concerns about existing procedures for detaining and questioning alleged terrorists, forcing Congress to establish procedures for detainee interrogations and prosecutions.
The bill the Senate passed establishes a system that protects key intelligence programs and preserves our ability to detain, question, and ultimately prosecute terrorists through full and fair trials before military commissions. The new law will guarantee that people tried before these commissions have just, basic rights including the presumption of innocence, the right to military and civilian counsel, the right to exclude evidence obtained through torture, and the right to appeal. The bill also protects classified information — what intelligence officials call “sources and methods” — from terrorists who could exploit it to plan future terrorist attacks. For example, while there is little risk in letting an accused murderer know how the police obtained their evidence, giving a high-level terrorist suspect information on our sources and methods of gathering intelligence could unmask the identify of valuable intelligence operatives. This would leave them to awful fates.
The bill also makes sure that our own military and intelligence personnel follow our treaty obligations as spelled out in the Geneva Conventions. In particular, it clearly defines what constitutes “grave breaches” of our obligations under the so-called Common Article 3, which, among other things, prohibits “humiliating and degrading treatment.”
After going temporarily off track, it’s great that the Senate finally acted and passed the bill. It’s certainly not the last bill addressing terrorism that the Senate will pass, but it will rank among the most important. The strong bipartisan vote shows that, even in the midst of an election year, the safety and security of the American people can and should transcend partisan passions that endanger national security.
The war on terror is one of the most consequential callings of our time. This law will help us win it.
– Bill Frist is Senate Majority Leader.