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Chicago Tribune June 29, 2006

Questions raised about detainees

By Stephen J. Hedges

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court decision Thursday rejecting the Bush administration's use of military commissions throws into limbo the future of nearly 500 detainees held by the United States.

Under the ruling, President Bush could turn to Congress to grant him authority to operate the military commissions. Or he could choose two existing venues--military courts-martial or civilian courts--to try suspects the U.S. has confined at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush initially hinted Thursday that he would like to take the matter to Capitol Hill and try to get a bill authorizing the military commissions.

White House spokesman Tony Snow noted that the court expressed concerns about a lack of congressional authority for the commissions.

Although Congress could grant Bush authority for the commissions, the process could be messy. It would almost certainly involve hearings and an exploration of the commissions' most controversial elements, including procedures that critics argue limit defendants' rights.

A congressional review also could expose the administration to a contentious election-year debate over the interrogation and detention policies it has employed in the name of fighting terrorism.

At least 10 detainees, all held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, had been expected to stand trial soon before the commissions.

Snow said the military has identified about 100 detainees it wants to release and repatriate.

Guantanamo once held about 750 terrorism suspects, some of whom have been released in recent months. Administration officials said Thursday that it holds 470 to 490 detainees. Globalsecurity.org, a military analysis group, said that as of June 26, Guantanamo had 536 detainees.

Detaining terrorist suspects at Guantanamo has been widely criticized by human-rights groups, but the administration has insisted that some of the detainees have yielded important information about Al Qaeda.

Senior administration officials who held a conference call with reporters after Thursday's decision said that up to 14 Guantanamo defendants have been identified for charges, and that figure could grow to 80. The cases of others were under review.

Authorized shortly after Sept. 11, the military commissions were Bush's way of resolving a novel legal dilemma.

The administration had to come up with a way to try the hundreds of possible terrorists being held at Guantanamo, but it feared that an ordinary trial, or even a court-martial, risked making sensitive information public and giving terrorists a platform. The tribunals--with unorthodox rules that, for example, did not give the detainees the right to see all the evidence against them--were the administration's solution to the conundrum. Now it will have to find another solution.

After Bush gave authority to establish the panels, the Pentagon issued a set of commission procedures. Those procedures became the target of critics.

The court, in apparent agreement with the critics, suggested that Bush turn to Congress, which it said holds legislative authority over the rules of military commissions.

Administration officials said that while Bush has suggested a willingness to work with Congress, the White House could also end up pursuing cases against the detainees through military courts-martial or even in federal court.

"The court invited the president and Congress to come together to work on a regime for military tribunals, military commissions, to try individuals like Mr. Hamdan," said one senior administration official, referring to Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemen native who was the focus of the court case. "That may not be the way the president ultimately goes."


Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune