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: http://www.newscom.com/cgi-bin/prnh/20040418/NYSU003 )
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.
(Read Newsweek's news releases at www.Newsweek.com.
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