Military Tribunals in the United States: Mark Weisenmiller Shows How the Fate of Al-Qaida and Taliban Prisoners in Cuba Is Linked to a US Supreme Court Decision of Sixty Years Ago. (Cross Current)

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AL-QAIDA AND TALIBAN detainees (or prisoners of war, depending on one's perspective) being held and interrogated at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, on the eastern coast of the Communist Caribbean island nation of Cuba, will be facing some sort of trial, on a litany of charges, in the near future. US president George W. Bush Jr., Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other American federal government officials are adamant that the detainees' treatment abides by the Geneva Convention, yet they have not classified these people as prisoners of war. Why? Because President Bush -- and especially Attorney-General John Ashcroft -- would prefer to see these al-Qaida and Taliban soldiers in custody facing judgement from military tribunals.

Attorney-General Ashcroft has based his legal arguments for military commissions for those kept in confinement at Guantanamo Bay on a past decision by the US Supreme Court. Ex parte Quirin 317 US 1 (1942) is the formal title of the decision, but it is more commonly referred to as simply the `Quirin Case'. The decision was handed down sixty years ago -- when America was in the early stages of its participation in the Second World War -- and the 1942 case, and its Hollywood-movie-like history, deserves closer examination.

During the night of June 13th, 1942, George Dasch, Ernest Burger, Heinrich Heinck and Richard Quirin -- all native Germans in their thirties who had emigrated to the USA and then went back to Germany to work for the Nazi Party -- were aboard an inflatable rowing boat that landed on the beach of Amagansett, Long Island. Their mission: to sabotage key industrial installations and corporations in America that were active in the production of various materials for the American war effort. Their landing was spotted by John Cullen, a Coast Guardsman, who was on patrol duty and confronted Dasch, just as the group was hiding their sabotage equipment and the German uniforms they had brought to ensure they would be treated as prisoners of war, if captured. Dasch kept Cullen quiet, briefly, by bribing him with $300 in American currency, and he and his cohorts found their way to Manhattan.

Cullen then told his superiors of his night-time adventure. When a Coast Guard search party found explosives in a seabag, and a hat emblazoned with a Nazi swastika buried in the beach sand, they realised that Nazi saboteurs had landed in America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was notified and hundreds of agents joined the manhunt. A few days later Dasch went to Washington -- while the other three men scattered through the US -- and telephoned the FBI, apparently under the impression that, if he contacted the agency and acted as informant, he would receive a fairly light sentence. The rest of his team were arrested the next day.

Meanwhile, a second sabotage team -- composed of Herbert Haupt (aged twenty-two), Edward Kerling (thirty-three), Herman Neubauer (thirty-two) and Werner Thiel (thirty-five) -- had landed Ponte Verde Beach, southeast of Jacksonville, Florida. They were also going to sabotage manufacturing plants in the US. These men succeeded in hiding their equipment, then splitting up and travelling to Cincinnati and New York. They did not, however, know that Dasch, who somehow during the long hours of interrogation had gained the impression that the FBI had promised him a Presidential pardon, was telling the FBI agents of their landing. They too were soon in custody.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted all eight men found guilty and executed. He made a note of this to US Attorney-General Francis Biddle, who argued for the government in the Quirin Case, which was the first American military tribunal to be held since the US Civil War.

Compared with the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the eight Nazis' confinement in the early 1940s was relatively comfortable. All were imprisoned in the district of Columbia Jail and they were isolated from one another. …