Secret Military Tribunal Shows Bush's Fear Of Justice System

16 November 2001

By Stentor Danielson

What is President Bush afraid of?

You would think that the leader of the free world, riding the biggest wave of popular support since his dad took on Saddam Hussein (and this coming just a year after more than half of Americans voted against him and in the face of continued recounts that cast doubt on his victory), would have little to fear. You would think a war backed by a broad, worldwide coalition would give him little to fear. You would think the surprising successes of the Northern Alliance fighters this week, expanding their territory to a third of Afghanistan and capturing Kabul, while the Taliban doesn’t even feel safe holing up in its stronghold of Kandahar and instead takes to the hills, would give him some confidence.

But, on Tuesday, Bush proclaimed to the world that he is deeply afraid. He announced an "extraordinary emergency" that allows him to assign military tribunals, rather than ordinary criminal courts, to try suspected terrorists. This decision allows him to circumvent the due process, rules of evidence and constitutional guarantees associated with our court system. The decisions of a military tribunal are not subject to judicial review.

The decision applies to non-U.S. citizens arrested for terrorism. Bush would decide which suspects would be tried in this manner, and the tribunal would be appointed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld would also decide how many judicial principles would be waived, by setting the rules of the court and establishing the standard of proof necessary for a conviction.

The name of the current military campaign in Afghanistan is Operation Enduring Freedom. An important subtext of our attempt to not only destroy the Taliban, but also to replace it with a government that will bring justice and freedom to the long-oppressed people of Afghanistan. So how is it anything but hypocrisy to order that suspected terrorists will be given anything less than the full Constitutional guarantees upon which the American model of justice and freedom is founded? As foreigners, these suspects have no legal claim to any such rights (indeed, the Supreme Court upheld Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to try eight Nazi saboteurs at a military tribunal), but they have every moral claim to them. Does not our Declaration of Independence state that "all men," not "all law-abiding Americans," are created equal? "It’s technically legal" is a coward’s rationalization.

What reason could Bush have to suspect that ordinary criminal courts would not swiftly bring terrorists to justice? My biggest fear would be that American jurors would be only too willing to convict somebody for terrorism connected to September 11, jumping to a conviction on less than sufficient evidence. But Bush somehow doesn’t see it that way. He called the rules of our Constitution and judicial system "not practicable" in this case. He seems to think that extraordinary circumstances are grounds for an exception to our basic principles, when in reality, extraordinary circumstances are a test of our commitment to do what is right.

Last month, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mohamed Rashed Daoud Al-'Owhali, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh and Wadih El-Hage were all convicted of the 1998 African embassy bombings. These four terrorists were all members of al-Qaida. They all received a fair trial and will spend the rest of their lives in prison. I would expect this precedent to be upheld for their brethren apprehended this year and next.

It isn’t just Bush who is afraid, though. Many powerful supporters of current U.S. policy are afraid. Perhaps the best example is the brouhaha that ensued when Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher suggested that firing cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away -- as the United States did in retaliation for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi -- is more cowardly than flying a suicide mission into the World Trade Center. Whether Maher is right about that count of cowardice is debatable. But the subsequent attempt to silence Maher through the withdrawal of his show from various stations is unquestionably cowardly. Cowardice is a refusal to face one’s opponents, a refusal to stand by your convictions even when they’re challenged. A non-coward would have stood up and said, "say what you like, Maher, but here is why I know you are wrong."

This is not an isolated incident, either. The Maroon-News has received letters instructing me that it is my duty as a journalist to support Bush without question. But the role of the free press is to openly question everything, so that if there is a problem, it will be found. Only cowards would not want their ideas to be examined and reviewed by as many intelligent minds as possible.

Secrecy is the product of fear. And Bush has been indulging in quite a bit of secrecy lately. He first caught flak for refusing to show the Taliban the evidence that connected Osama bin Laden to the attacks on September 11. The best he could do was to call in the assurances of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had also seen the evidence, as if the Taliban thought Britain was anything other than America’s bedfellow. Criticism of this tactic was deflected by insinuating that those who demanded evidence thought bin Laden was innocent. I personally have no doubt bin Laden was involved. But that does not mean we can throw due process to the wind, especially when surrounded by nations that don’t trust us in the least.

The secrecy continued when the Justice department started rounding up suspected al-Qaida members and material witnesses that could help to convict those involved in the events of September 11. The names of those arrested and the charges against them have not been released, though such information is routinely provided for other arrests. The justice department has even refused to say how many people it has apprehended, though estimates run around several hundred. Without this information, nobody has anything but Attorney General John Ashcroft’s assertions to guarantee that these people -- who are American citizens -- are being accorded their full constitutional rights.

When Bush accepted Al Gore’s concession last year, he claimed his administration would take a page from Thomas Jefferson’s book. Lately it seems as if Bush is more a student of Peruvian ex-dictator Alberto Fujimori. If Bush is as afraid as he seems, score one for bin Laden.

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