Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Getting It Right

Article excerpt


White House retreats on military tribunals after newspaper reports

With polls showing strong public support for the Bush administration's war on terrorism -- at home as well as abroad -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft opened his Dec. 6 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee with the grave charge that those who criticize him and President Bush on civil-liberties grounds "erode our national unity and ... give ammunition to America's enemies."

Unintimidated, the print press -- considerably more often and at greater lengths than TV -- has reported mounting criticism of the presidential order authorizing military tribunals for noncitizens accused of involvement with terrorist acts. Other administration measures also have been under fire.

A particularly effective analyst of the constitutionality of the military-tribunals edict has been The New York Times columnist William Safire, writing of "Bush's cockamamy order to deny the rule of law and public trial to those accused of terrorism." Accurately self- described as "a libertarian conservative Republican contrarian iconoclast," Safire, with jeremiads from his pulpit at the Times -- along with caustic editorials in the Times, The Washington Post, and The Washington Times, among other papers -- alerted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He is in charge of drafting the regulations for the tribunals. Rumsfeld sought the advice of William H. Webster, former director of the FBI and CIA, and Lloyd Cutler, adviser to several presidents.

The result, as leaked to the press by the Defense Department, is that the final rules -- unlike the sweeping original order -- may require a unanimous verdict (not two-thirds) for imposing the death penalty and proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, as in civilian courts, rather than merely evidence with "probative value to a reasonable person." The original order allowed appeals only to the president and secretary of defense, but the new proposal calls for a three-judge military appellate panel. Opponents will still have grounds for complaint. Among them, as constitutional law professor Herman Schwartz pointed out in The Nation, "the tribunal still may admit single, double, and triple hearsay" evidence -- rumors, gossip -- that a witness cannot verify.

Meanwhile, despite the attorney general's implication that dissenters are unpatriotic, the press continues to reveal such decidedly controversial Ashcroft decisions, made without his consulting Congress, as the reintroduction of the FBI's COINTELPRO operations. This counterintelligence program, active from 1956 to 1971, allowed the FBI to not only monitor political and religious groups opposing government policies but also infiltrate and disrupt these organizations. …

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