NEWSWEEK: White House and Justice Officials Had Fierce Debates Over How To Treat Americans With Suspected Al Qaeda Ties: Either Lock Up Indefinitely As 'Enemy Combatants' or Let System Work

'There Have Been Some Very Intense Disagreements,' Says Official

Apr 18, 2004, 01:00 ET from Newsweek

    NEW YORK, April 18 /PRNewswire/ -- In September 2002, a group of senior
 Bush administration officials convened for a secret videoconference to make a
 difficult decision: what to do with six Americans suspected of conspiring with
 Al Qaeda. The Yemeni-born men from Lackawanna, N.Y., were accused of training
 at a camp in Afghanistan, where some had met Osama bin Laden. For Vice
 President Dick Cheney and his ally, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the
 answer was simple: the accused men should be locked up indefinitely as "enemy
 combatants," and thrown into a military brig with no right to trial or even to
 see a lawyer, Newsweek reports in the current issue. That's what authorities
 had done with two other Americans, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. "They are the
 enemy, and they're right here in the country," Cheney argued, according to a
     (Photo: )
     But others were hesitant to take the extraordinary step of stripping the
 men of their rights, especially because there was no evidence that they had
 actually carried out any terrorist acts. Instead, Attorney General John
 Ashcroft insisted he could bring a tough criminal case against them for
 providing "material support" to Al Qaeda, report Investigative Correspondent
 Michael Isikoff and Washington Bureau Chief Daniel Klaidman in the April 26
 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, April 19).
     In the months after 9/11 there were fierce debates -- and even shouting
 matches -- inside the White House over the treatment of Americans with
 suspected Qaeda ties. On one side, Ashcroft, perhaps in part protecting his
 turf, argued in favor of letting the criminal-justice system work, and warned
 that the White House had to be mindful of public opinion and a potentially
 wary Supreme Court. On the other, Cheney and Rumsfeld argued that in time of
 war, there are few limits on what a president can do to protect the country.
 "There have been some very intense disagreements," says a senior law-
 enforcement official. "It has been a hard-fought war."
     Hamdi and Padilla have challenged their enemy-combatant status. Next week
 the Supreme Court will hear their arguments, in what could be the most
 profound legal issue in the terror war: whether the president can lock up
 American citizens suspected of terrorist links indefinitely, without charges.
 This week the court will also hear a case to decide if foreign detainees at
 Guantanamo have any legal rights.
     Hamdi, a Louisiana-born, Saudi-raised U.S. citizen discovered in the
 spring of 2002 among the hundreds of ragtag Taliban fighters sent to
 Guantanamo, was flown to a Naval brig in Norfolk, Virginia, while
 administration lawyers tried to figure out what to do with him. When a local
 public defender who read about Hamdi in the newspaper petitioned to meet with
 him, an assistant U.S. attorney made a novel argument in court: Hamdi was an
 "unlawful enemy combatant," and had no right to counsel.
     Administration lawyers concede that there was a seat-of-the-pants quality
 to the way events unfolded. "There is a sense in which we were making this up
 as we went along," says one top government attorney. "You have to remember we
 were dealing with a completely new paradigm: an open ended conflict, a
 stateless enemy, and a borderless battlefield."
     Padilla, the Muslim convert who was arrested while returning home from
 Pakistan, where he allegedly met with a top Qaeda operative and planned to set
 off a dirty bomb in the U.S., has been held in a military brig in South
 Carolina. He was also decreed an enemy combatant.
     As months wore on, Justice lawyers became increasingly uneasy about
 holding Padilla indefinitely without counsel.  Solicitor General Ted Olson
 warned the tough stand would probably be rejected by the courts.
 Administration lawyers went so far as to predict which Supreme Court justices
 would ultimately side for and against them. But the White House, backed
 strongly by Cheney, refused to budge. Instead, Newsweek has learned, officials
 privately debated whether to name more Americans as enemy combatants --
 including a truck driver from Ohio and a group of men from Portland.
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SOURCE Newsweek