March Madness Strikes the Terror Debates

The Wall Street Journal is absolutely right thatLindsey Graham is tossing up an embarrassing air ball. Graham's effort to get the administration to abandon legitimate federal court trials for suspected terrorists in exchange for the funding needed to close Guantanamo Bay is headed nowhere fast, predicts the Journal.

As I've noted before, Graham doesn't have support for his scheme from either side of the aisle.

Senators with any respect for the U.S. justice system, let alone real concern for national security, know that it's absurd to bargain away the requirement that the 9/11 suspects get a legitimate trial. That means a trial that not only convicts the guilty but reveals what really happened when the United States was ruthlessly attacked on September 11, 2001, and showcases our respect for the rule of law over brutality and political expedience. After all, the US constitution is no bargaining chip - it's survived 223 years, through war and peace, for good reason.

Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and others know that any cheap political points lawmakers might score by abandoning American principles will come back to bite them - particularly if military commission convictions are reversed on appeal. They'll be even more embarrassed when the country looks back a few years from now and wonders how Congress came to abandon the most basic American principles because it was cowed by a handful of thugs eager to be seen as warriors for Allah martyred by the United States government.

Lawmakers speaking out against civilian trials, meanwhile, are so intent on undermining the Obama administration, regardless of their impact on national security, that they're obstructing justice to score political points. Not only do they oppose federal trials, but they won't agree to closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay so long as President Obama remains in office. No matter that scores of military leaders, in addition to former President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain - when he was a presidential candidate - agreed that Guantanamo must be shuttered.

So the Journal's right that Graham can't possibly deliver victory on his proposed compromise. But the paper's conclusion -- that military commissions are the place for KSM & Co. to go -- is based on assumptions wholly divorced from the facts.

Military commission proceedings "since September 11 have been serious and even-handed," writes the Journal in its endorsement of those trials.

Really? Three convictions in eight years - only two of which followed trials that were even contested -- hardly backs that claim up.

Take the case of Salim Hamdan, who military prosecutors characterized as a "hardened Qaeda member" and bin Laden's right hand man. The military jury acquitted Hamdan of all conspiracy charges and three of eight charges for "material support for terrorism." The result was a sentence of only five and a half years - most of which he'd already served. And that was a case that government officials had said was "one of their strongest" against any of the Guantanamo detainees, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have convicted more than 195 terrorists in federal court.

Even Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes and former Bush administration official Jack Goldsmith, writing in the Washington Post last week, acknowledge the weakness of the military commissions. The two note that "serious legal issues remain unresolved, including the validity of the non-traditional criminal charges that will be central to the commissions' success and the role of the Geneva Conventions." Sorting out those issues "will take years and might render them ineffectual," the authors add. They also note that the commissions lack international legitimacy.

Wittes' and Goldsmith's solution, however, is even worse than the Journal's. "Don't bother trying them at all," the two scholars pronounced. "Domestically, the political costs of trying high-level terrorists in federal courts have become exorbitant," they argue, while the "public relations and related legitimacy benefits" of a military commission trial aren't great, either.

So there we have it. Whether and how to try a group of men who are believed to have orchestrated the worst terrorist attack and mass murder ever on U.S. soil has come down to a question of pure politics. "It is time to be realistic about terrorist detention," write Wittes and Goldsmith, and to concede that the time has come to do away with our quaint notions of justice in favor of a new system of indefinite detention without trial. That should be supported, they argue, with new legislation codifying its legitimacy in U.S. law.

To be sure, that's been the de facto response to many of the suspected terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay for the past eight years.

A similar course was briefly considered after World War II, when Winston Churchillreportedly told Joseph Stalin that he'd rather just execute Nazi leaders upon their capture. Stalin, of all people, insisted that they deserved a trial.

Historically, the United States has prided itself as being several steps above Stalin in terms of its respect for the rule of law. But these latest proposals make one wonder just how low some American opinionators and policymakers may be willing to sink.

Christian Coalition Declares Support For John Kerry’s Climate Efforts

It’s official: the religious right no longer dominates evangelical politics. The movement has outgrown its narrow focus on school prayer, abortion, and homophobia. Evangelicals have been trending this way for several years, but concrete change came today as the Christian Coalition endorsed John Kerry and Lindsey Graham's efforts to pass a major clean energy and climate change bill. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Christian Coalition, it’s the organization formed out of the remnants of Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign and brought to prominence by Ralph Reed – what Democracy for America is to Howard Dean, and the backbone of the religious right in the early 1990s.)

I have long been intrigued by the changing nature of evangelical politics. It was the subject of my undergraduate thesis: evangelicals never cease their political involvement, but every few decades, the nature of that involvement changes. Since the mid-1970s, evangelical politics have been in the era of the “religious right,” but that era is coming to a close. Evangelicals aren’t abandoning their positions on the aforementioned wedge issues, but they are changing their rhetoric and beginning to care about justice issues. All the evidence, though, has been circumstantial, with plenty to counter it: Individual megachurch pastors, like Rick Warren, call for a more civil discourse and a focus on more than just two or three issue, but always meet with sharp rebukes from the likes of James Dobson. A poll showed young evangelicals, while as pro-life as their parents, are also pro-civil-unions, but there’s no sign of political action to back it up. The Christian Coalition elected a president concerned with creation care (climate change) and poverty in 2006, but ousted him before he took office.

So while thousands of evangelical churches are “greening” their congregations, whether or not personal commitment to “creation care” would translate to political action has always been a slippery question. Today, I think, we finally have a solid answer. This isn’t just a generational shift like in the above poll; it’s the old guard seeing the light and braodening their focus. The current leader, Roberta Combs, took over as president for Pat Robertson in 2001 and led the aforementioned ouster of her 2006 replacement, but says the following in a new radio ad:

President Bush was right: our addiction to foreign oil threatens our national security and economic prosperity. America spends almost a billion dollars a day on foreign oil and a lot of that goes to countries that do not like us and harbor terrorists. Washington's failure to act puts our national security at risk, and drains our economy. I've heard from so many Christian Coalition supporters that energy is one of the most important issues we face today. America is a can-do country. We've got to take the lead to explore energy alternatives and protect our national security. We have to make our country safer by creating jobs with the made-in-America energy plan. I would like to ask you to call Sen. Lindsey Graham and encourage him to continue fighting for our families.

Evangelical politics are same-old same-old on abortion and, for now, gay rights. They are and always will be fundamentally conservative, but that doesn’t mean the progressive movement should reject a strong partner on specific issues such as the fight against climate change. With the forced ouster of James Dobson at Focus on the Family, the movement’s rhetoric and willingness to cooperate seems to be changing, and that’s an outstretched hand I say we take where we can. Assuming the KGL bill doesn’t give too much away to coal, we need to do whatever it takes to pass it. This just might be the “change” voters were looking for: not just in policy outcomes, but in rhetoric and advocacy as well.

Lindsey Graham's Third Strike?

 

Given Senator Lindsey Graham's military background, one would think he would push hard for the trial and conviction of all terrorists. After all, U.S. federal courts have successfully tried more than 195 terroristssince the terrorist attacks of September 11. But for the past five years, Graham has instead repeatedly obstructed the effort to try and convict the 9/11 detainees.

In 2005, the South Carolina Senator helped push through the Detainee Treatment Act, which tried to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over all Guantanamo detainees' legal challenges to their detention. In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court ruled that the law could only apply to future detainee claims, not those already filed. It also ruled that the Bush administration's military commissions were unconstitutional.

So Graham helped broker a deal with the White House to pass the Military Commissions Act of 2006, promising that would solve the detainee problem. That law tried once again to deny habeas rights retroactively, and created a new set of Congressionally-authorized military commissions to try suspected terrorists.

Back then, dozens of former military leaders, Judge Advocates General and civilian legal experts objected that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was a bad idea. Among other things, it would violate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the United States Constitution.

With Graham's urging, Congress passed the law anyway.

Since then, the military commissions have convicted exactly three terrorists - one of whom did not even put up a defense. The other two have already been set free.

In June 2008, in Boumediene v. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was unconstitutional for limiting detainees' access to judicial review; the Supreme Court made clear that Guantanamo detainees have the right to challenge their detention in regular civilian courts.

That sharp rebuke from the Supreme Court has not stopped Lindsey Graham from now attempting a third time to broker yet another deal to deny detainees the right to civilian court review, claiming once again that he can solve the government's Guantanamo detainee dilemma.

Given his track record, does Graham really have any credibility on this issue?

This time, Graham is trying to push through Congress a bill that would deny the government the funding necessary to try the 9/11 defendants in a civilian federal court, and require their trial by military commission.

"I believe it is inappropriate to give the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks the same constitutional rights as an American citizen," said Senator Lindsey Graham. "It has never been done in the history of warfare and now is not the time to start."

Actually, foreigners have always been given the same constitutional rights as U.S. citizens in criminal proceedings. And military detainees have always had the right to challenge their detention in civilian courts.

Regardless of whether the law is constitutional, as a matter of national security former military leaders say that Graham's proposal is a very bad idea.

"It's sad and a mistake that we should politicize these decisions and get Congress involved in what is clearly the constitutional responsibility of the president," said Retired Admiral John Hutson at a recent press conference.

Retired General Harry Soyster called on President Obama to stand firm in "administering the great justice system of this country," adding that he should "not give into political pushes that would push us clearly in a wrong path with long-term consequences."

Retired Major General William Nash said pushing the 9/11 trials into military commissions would "give aid to our enemies" and "lessen our reputation with our allies."

Even General Colin Powell opposes the idea: "The suggestion that somehow a military commission is the way to go isn't born out by the history of the military commissions," Powell said recently on CBS's Face the Nation.

Yet Graham is now also making a far more sweeping attempt to undermine suspected terrorists' right to a civilian trial. Senator Graham is reportedly trying to broker a deal with the White House and his Senate colleagues to get them to pass a new law authorizing indefinite detention without trial of terror suspects on U.S. soil. In return, Graham claims, he will deliver Republican support for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Graham doesn't seem to have much support for his proposal from either side of the aisle, with objections on both legal and practical grounds.

"There is a law already on indefinite detention," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, (D-MI), told Congressional Quarterly. "It's called the Geneva Convention."

Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said "I don't think there's any need for a new statute," adding that it "confuses the issue to suggest that we don't have that authority now."

That hasn't stopped Senator Graham from promising the White House once again something he appears wholly unable to deliver.

The question is whether anyone will fall for it this time around.

Caving on the 9/11 Trial Would Send All the Wrong Messages

The Washington Post reports today that President Obama's advisors are planning to recommend that the administration reverse its decision to try the September 11 suspects in federal court and instead opt for military commissions. That's more than just disappointing, given the overwhelming consensus of military and legal experts that civilian courts are more effective for prosecuting terrorists. If the president were to heed that advice, it would also be astonishingly bad politics.

The Post story doesn't say what President Obama has decided to do, or whether Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators in federal court to much fanfare in November, will go along with those recommendations. But for the administration to reverse itself now on a key legal and strategic decision that critics have made a political hot potato would signal to Obama's opponents that if they just heat up the rhetoric and prey on people's fears enough, the administration will cave. And that would be a sorry signal of how this administration plans to determine critical matters of national security.

Recent reports have suggested that Senator Lindsey Graham has been cutting deals with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, not only on the 9/11 trials but on passing legislation to secure the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects in exchange for supporting the administration's efforts to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. To drum up support for his ideas, Graham has been going around denouncing the idea that the United States would "give the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks the same constitutional rights as an American citizen," and insisting that military commissions are the "proper venue" for such trials. Graham neglects to mention in such statements that all criminals in the United States have always had constitutional rights in U.S. courts -- these rights are, after all, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

And to call military commissions the "proper venue" is to suggest that they have a strong record for convicting terrorists -- which, in fact, they do not. Military commissions have convicted precisely three terrorists so far, two of whom have already been released from prison. By contrast, U.S. federal courts have convicted almost 200 self-described Islamic jihadist terrorists since the terrorist attacks of September 11.

None of that matters, however, when it comes to the politics of fear. Since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the decision to try the 9/11 suspects in federal court, his opponents have turned it into the linchpin of their opposition to the administration. At a demonstration in front of the federal courthouse in New York in December, protesters called Obama and Holder "the real terrorists" and demanded their impeachment.

As I stood in the cold rain watching them, I had to wonder, since when did so many ordinary Americans (admittedly many with tea bags hanging from their star-spangled hats) come to care so much about the procedural complexities of the federal judicial system? Why in the past, when the Bush administration prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in this same Manhattan courthouse, had they never claimed that our judicial system was a "moral disgrace" that would allow terrorists to "spew their hate across America"?

Of course, most of those protesters know very little about the U.S. court system and how much more effective it's been at convicting terrorists and locking them away for life than any military commission has. But some disgruntled Americans, understandably angry and insecure in tough economic times, have been whipped into a frenzy by Obama's most adamant opponents, who've channeled their fears into angry protests about terrorism rather than addressing their real and legitimate concerns.

Perhaps that's to be expected. But for the Obama administration to cave to that hysteria would send all the wrong messages. It would signal a victory for the politics of fear over the longstanding American tradition of respect for the rule of law. It would showcase a triumph of crass political deal-making over rational, fact-based decisionmaking. For President Obama, it would suggest a profound weakness on his part -- a message to his adversaries that if they just make enough of a stink about the decisions they don't like, then they can change them. And most importantly, it would mean that the administration is willing to sacrifice lasting national security to momentary political expedience. And that would be the saddest statement of all.


Weekly Mulch: New bills and old money

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Climate legislation is returning to the Senate’s docket, and leaders on Capitol Hill are hoping that this version, a compromise bill spearheaded by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), can pass without getting caught in the morass of money and politics that has delayed action so far.

A long, long time ago…

Remember, there was a time when Congress was going to pass climate legislation before the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. President Barack Obama was going to show up with a bill in hand and lead the world towards a better climate future. After the House passed its climate bill in June 2009, the Senate began discussing climate change, and a first stab by Sen. Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) went nowhere. Now, Kerry has turned to less liberal colleagues to draft an alternative that would appeal to moderates and even Republicans.

Now the Massachusetts senator is promising that climate change isn’t dead. A new bill is coming—more information may be in the offing as early as today, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones.

Third time’s the charm

Sen. Kerry is trying a new tactic to pass climate legislation. He’s waiting to release his plan until he knows the bill has the 60 supporters it needs to circumvent a filibuster. The details have not been hammered out yet, and even the Senators who’ve been in talks with Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman don’t seem to have a clear sense of what will be in the version that will emerge.

In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, released an ambitious draft of the legislation, let lobbyists and members of Congress fight over it, and passed a much-changed edition months later. Sen. Kerry tried a similar plan on his side of Capitol Hill (that was the Kerry-Boxer bill), but it did not work.

With this piece of legislature, Sens. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are working out the compromises before they release the legislation. Both reporting and speculation about their bill say that it will abandon the cap-and-trade system passed in the House. Cap-and-trade restricts carbon emissions across the economy; a variation on that policy that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill may favor will limit the system to a few sectors.

Will it work?

Kerry’s expected bill may be a much weaker plan than any proposed so far, yet it is still not certain that the Senate will support it. The lead authors of the bill have been meeting with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, as Sheppard reports, but those targets have not promised support yet. Coming out of a meeting, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) told reporters: “There were some interesting things that were discussed in there and like everything else in the United States Senate, the devil is in the details.”

From a distance, banner-day climate legislation still seems possible. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the National Resources Defense Council believe that they will see a bill this year that caps carbon. These green groups would be able to live with the incentives handed to industry groups so far, according to Campus Progress’ Tristan Fowler.

“There are compromises [that can go] too far. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re getting near that territory at the moment,” Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Fowler.

Sickly green

Before getting too excited about stamping a green seal of approval on Congress’ legislation, consider Johann Hari’s testimony in The Nation about the relationships between environmental groups and the industries that they oppose.

Hari has reported on climate change issues for years, and at first, he “imagined that American green groups were on these people’s side in the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many were on a different path—one that began in the 1980s, with a financial donation.”

Hari argues that as environmental groups began to reach out to polluters, handing them awards for green behavior and accepting support from their deep pockets, they learned to compromise too readily and accept political excuses for delaying action on climate change. While in other realms these compromises might fly, when the stakes are as high as they are on environmental issues, that behavior turns the stomach.

“You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, ‘Sorry, the swing states don’t want you to happen today. Come back in fifty years,’” Hari writes.

The green future

When Kerry, Lieberman and Graham do release the compromised bill, watch for a tsunami of money and influence that could pack the bill with prizes for specific industries—or derail it altogether. Just this week, the natural gas industry’s lobbyists told The Hill, a D.C.-based newspaper, that they were ready to fight with the coal industry over incentives in the Senate bill. At AlterNet, Harvey Wasserman writes that the nuclear industry spent $645 million in the past decade to get back into the energy game, according to a new report from American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. (Hint: that $645 million is working in their favor.)

In the Senate, the influence of oil companies will play an important role, according to David Roberts at Grist.

“While coal has a lot of power in the House, oil has enormous power in the Senate, particularly over the conservadems and Republicans needed to put the bill over the top,” Roberts explains.

No matter what legislation passes and what incentives it contains, environmentalists need to continue putting pressure on their representatives in Congress and on national environmental groups to push back against polluting industries and work to fix the world’s climate.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

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