WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has drafted a manual for upcoming detainee trials that would allow suspected terrorists to be convicted on hearsay evidence and coerced testimony and imprisoned or put to death.
According to a copy of the manual obtained by The Associated Press, a terror suspect's defense lawyer cannot reveal classified evidence in the person's defense until the government has a chance to review it.
The manual, sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday and scheduled to be released later by the Pentagon, is intended to track a law passed last fall by Congress restoring President Bush's plans to have special military commissions try terror-war prisoners. Those commissions had been struck down earlier in the year by the Supreme Court.
The Pentagon manual could spark a fresh confrontation between the Bush administration and Congress — now led by Democrats — over the treatment of the nation’s terrorism suspects.
Last September, Congress — then led by Republicans — sent Bush a bill granting wide latitude in interrogating and detaining captured enemy combatants. The legislation also prohibited some of the worst abuses of detainees like mutilation and rape, but granted the president leeway to decide which other interrogation techniques are permissible.
Long road to bill's passage
Passage of the bill, which was backed by the White House, followed more than three months of debate that included angry rebukes by Democrats of the administration's interrogation policies, and a short-lived rebellion by some Republican senators.
The Detainee Treatment Act, separate legislation championed in 2005 by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., prohibited the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of military and CIA prisoners. It was approved overwhelmingly by Congress despite a veto threat by Bush, who eventually signed it into law.
The Pentagon manual is aimed at ensuring that enemy combatants — the Bush administration's term for many of the terrorism suspects captured on the battlefield — "are prosecuted before regularly constituted courts affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized by civilized people," according to the document.
As required by law, the manual prohibits statements obtained by torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" as prohibited by the Constitution.
However, the law does allow statements obtained through coercive interrogation techniques if obtained before Dec. 30, 2005, and deemed reliable by a judge.
Nearly 400 detainees suspected of links to al-Qaida and the Taliban are still being held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while about 380 others have been transferred or released. The Defense Department is currently planning trials for at least 10 suspects.
Geneva Conventions violated?
Democrats have said they would like to revisit detainee legislation and address concerns that the bill gives the president too much latitude interpreting standards set by the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment — and may deny detainees legal rights.
Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he planned to scrutinize the manual to ensure that it does not “run afoul” of the Constitution.
“I have not yet seen evidence that the process by which these rules were built or their substance addresses all the questions left open by the legislation. This committee will fulfill its oversight responsibility to make sure this is the case,” Skelton said in a written statement.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and some Democrats have said the legislation will be shot down by the courts as unconstitutional because it bars detainees from protesting their detentions. Under the law, only individuals selected for military trial are given access to a lawyer and judge; other military detainees can be held until hostilities cease.
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