Politics & Policy

A Quick Way Forward After Boumediene

Either Congress reasserts itself, or terror-friendly bedlam ensues.

It is difficult to single out the most outrageous aspect of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s cataclysmic Boumediene ruling last Thursday: The reckless vesting of constitutional rights in aliens whose only connection with our body politic is their bloody jihad against Americans; the roughshod ride over binding precedent to accomplish that feat; or the smug arrogance perfectly captured by dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts’s description of a “constitutional bait and switch” — a Court that first beseeches the political branches to enact a statutory procedure for handling combatant detentions, and then, once a thoughtful law is compliantly passed, invalidates the effort for its failure to satisfy the eccentric predilections of five lawyers.

What is done, however, is done.


It should never have come to this. Ever since the Bush administration quite rightly called for a new enforcement paradigm after the 9/11 attacks — the criminal-justice system having proved itself grossly inadequate to protect national security during the Nineties — it has been apparent that shifting to a pure military system was problematic.

The war on terror is not like other wars. No war has a determinate end, but this one does not have a foreseeable ending scenario. With radical Islam, there will be no treaty, no terms of surrender, no conquering enemy territory. Instead, there is only vigilance until the enemy’s capacity to project power is quelled. Because of that, strict application of the laws of war — which permit indefinite detention until war’s end — strikes our influential legal elites as unduly onerous.

Our enemies, moreover, are terrorists who operate in the shadows, in civilian garb not military insignia. In a just world, that would inure to their detriment. In the world we inhabit, it perversely benefits them by sowing doubt about their status. It makes plausible the possibility that we have scooped up at least some people in error.

The public anger over 9/11 has faded. With a relentless campaign, fired by sympathetic media coverage, our legal elites have succeeded in raising popular concerns about the specter of innocents being held in perpetuity at the whim of the executive, without an opportunity to challenge their detention before an independent judge.

This was more of a political challenge than a legal one. Long ago, Congress and the administration should have joined forces to forge a comprehensive system that would answer those concerns. To their credit, the political branches did at least try to shore up the military detention system by providing, for the first time in history, enemy access to a civilian court — the D.C. Circuit federal appeals court — so jihadists could challenge the completed military proceedings. It is beyond arrogance that five Supreme Court justices did not allow that system to work; that, to bask in international huzzahs, they scrapped it before the D.C. Circuit could wrestle with a single case on a concrete record — before the tribunals could prove they were not kangaroo courts after all.

But let’s face it: The handwriting for what happened last Thursday has been on the wall since 2004. That’s when the Court, in a fit of imperious recklessness nearly the equal of Boumediene, decided in Rasul v. Bush that the jihadists had statutory habeas corpus rights. The handwriting was brought into starker relief in 2006 when, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Court selectively mined and tortured the language of the Geneva Conventions to vest the jihadists with trial rights under Geneva’s Common Article 3.

This has been coming at us like a runaway freight train. Congress and the administration should have seen it and stopped it. They failed to act, so the cure will be harder now — though we must, for the sake of our security, press ahead with a legislative cure.


Why harder? Well, until last Thursday, alien enemy combatants had no American constitutional rights. Their rights were limited to whatever the political branches, chiefly Congress, chose to grant them. If Congress, with the administration’s help, had undertaken to devise a comprehensive system of rules and procedures for terrorist detention and trial — what I have several times since 2004 proposed as a “national-security court” (see, e.g., here, here and hereNR subscription required for the last one) — it is very likely that the Supreme Court would have stayed its hand. Indeed, the justices originally declined to hear the Boumediene case before changing their minds at the end of the 2007 term, as public criticism of the military system mounted.

But the political branches ignored the neon signs. Now the Court has decided that the combatants have constitutional habeas rights. If you can follow this, the bloc of liberal justices reasons that the framers designed our fundamental law to empower enemies of the American people to use the American people’s courts as a weapon to compel the American people’s commander-in-chief to justify his actions during a war overwhelmingly authorized by the American people’s elected representatives . . . even as those enemies continue killing Americans.

The upshot of the ruling is that the judiciary, not Congress, could now become the master of deciding what rights our enemies have in wartime. When rights are based on the Constitution, rather than on statutes, Congress may not reduce them. Courts assert the power to define their ultimate parameters.

In the context of war powers — powers that are political, not legal — that would be a disaster. Courts are not responsible for our national security. Their task is to ensure that parties litigating legal cases before them are afforded due process. Moreover, the judicial tendency, when the United States is a party, is to bend over backwards to eliminate not just the reality but the mere perception of unfairness to the adversary — even if that adversary happens to be a ruthless, incorrigible enemy of the United States who would, given his druthers, torch the Constitution and install freedom-hating sharia law.

Worse, while waging war is a society’s ultimate political act, and thus suited for management only by the society’s politically accountable officials, judges are insulated from the political process. They needn’t fear being removed or voted out of office if they impose a regime that is overly solicitous of terrorist rights and heedless of national security. They can do what Leftist politicians would do if they weren’t so worried about the ballot box.

This perfect storm of institutional responsibility, natural proclivity, and political immunity hardwires judges to ratchet up due process demands over time. In the warfare context, the price will be paid in American lives.

The most reprehensible aspect of the Boumediene ruling is thus Justice Kennedy’s diktat that all “questions regarding the legality of the detention [of combatants] are to be resolved in the first instance by the District Court” — as if Congress, the law writing branch of our government, had nothing to say about them.

Congress must ignore that brazen overstatement. Boumediene is a terrible decision, but all it means for the moment is that the jihadists held at Guantanamo Bay have been given the opportunity to press their cases — i.e., to seek their release from custody — in the federal district courts. The combatants have not been ordered released, and the narrow majority did not presume to prescribe a procedure for how the district courts should handle those cases.


That is the job of Congress, and it must act now. Bear in mind, even in the civilian-justice system, where the judicial competence is generally undeniable, it is Congress that enacts rules of procedure and evidence. We do not leave judges free to make it up as they go along. How much less should we do so with respect to combatant detention — a war power as to which judges have no institutional competence?

There may not be time now for ambitious, comprehensive projects like sculpting a national-security court. Boumediene has produced a crisis that demands an immediate fix. But Congress could very quickly accomplish the more modest task of enacting rules and procedures for combatant habeas proceedings. In fact, there is already a model of sorts.

Long ago, our lawmakers enacted a statutory scheme to control pretrial detention in federal criminal cases. It is codified at Section 3142 of Title 18, United States Code. In cases involving the most serious charges and defendants with the most vicious criminal histories, Congress has directed courts to grant the government a presumption in favor of detention. In detention hearings, furthermore, the law permits the parties to proceed by offering hearsay and attorney proffers of evidence; the presentation of witnesses is rare, and needn’t be allowed at all. In addition, a court considering detention is entitled to rely on any information developed in other proceedings — including on the fact that a grand jury has found probable cause that the defendant committed the alleged crime.

Mind you, that is in civilian criminal proceedings where the defendant is presumed innocent. We have long permitted lengthy periods of incarceration without trial, much less conviction, and this system has repeatedly been upheld in the face of all manner of constitutional challenge.

Obviously, being held as an alien enemy combatant in a terrorist war against the United States is a far more serious matter than even the drug and violent crimes (to say nothing of flight risks posed by foreign defendants) that routinely result in civilian pretrial detention. Thus, Congress could quickly enact a statute requiring the district courts in combatant habeas cases to afford the commander-in-chief a presumption mandating detention. That is, if the government established a rational basis for believing the detainee was an enemy combatant, he would be ordered detained unless the detainee proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not an enemy combatant.

Congress could provide for the presentation of evidence by hearsay, proffer, and affidavit — with a directive that the court may not compel the government (particularly, the military and intelligence community) to produce witnesses for testimony in court. It could provide for classified intelligence to be presented to the judge ex parte, with only a non-classified summary provided to the combatant. It could require the court to give deference during wartime to the conclusion of combatant status review tribunals already conducted by the military (allowing judges to disregard those conclusions only upon a showing that the conclusion was irrational — the same standard that compels federal appeals courts, in every single civilian criminal case, to refrain from disturbing a trial court’s findings of fact).

To promote efficiency, since the issues in these cases are likely to be repetitive, Congress could also direct that all petitions be filed in the District of Columbia, with all appeals to the D.C. Circuit and, ultimately, the Supreme Court. Though I would prefer to see the cases directed to a specialized court, it is not practical to expect one could be designed in the short-term. We need a solution that can be implemented tomorrow.

If Congress were to enact such a law, patterned on the pretrial detention statute but properly imposing greater burdens on petitioners who are alleged to be wartime enemies rather than mere criminals, the result would be that only the most egregious miscarriage of justice would result in a finding that a detainee was not an enemy combatant. That is as it should be — especially given that (a) alien enemy combatants have never before been afforded such rights and (b) only four years ago, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court itself said judicial deference to the commander-in-chief was due even if an alleged combatant was an American citizen.

We must, naturally, anticipate that the federal courts will find the occasional, egregious miscarriage of justice. Thus Congress should also provide for what would happen to such a combatant. In short, he should be detained until he can be either repatriated to his native country or sent to a country of our choosing which is willing to receive him; under no circumstances should he be released into the United States.

On that score, we must be mindful of an oft-overlooked fact: Unlike American citizens who file habeas-corpus claims challenging their detention after conviction in civilian cases, the alien enemy combatants making war on us are not relying solely — or even principally — on legal proceedings. To the contrary, they have governments aggressively pursuing their release by diplomatic means. That is why the detainee population at Gitmo is down to about 270 when once it was over 800.

Naturally, Sen. Barack Obama and other hard-Left Democrats are thrilled with Boumediene. They are enthused by the prospect that federal judges, if left to their own devices, could turn these proceedings into full-blown trials, with all the constitutional protections they would gladly give our enemies if they thought voters would let them get away with it.

We shouldn’t let them get away with it.

Unduly empowered by the bedlam of unguided judicial proceedings, many jihadists will be freed. If that happens, Americans will be killed. It is that stark, and it should be that intolerable. It is the solemn responsibility of our lawmakers to prevent that outcome. With an election looming, with nearly 200,000 young Americans putting their lives on the line, and with an enemy working energetically to reprise 9/11, every member of Congress should be challenged to tell us where he or she stands on Boumediene and its aftermath.

Andrew C. McCarthy is author of Willful Blindness: Memoir of the Jihad and director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.


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