Richard Reeves

Extraordinary Times: Secret Government (Part I)

WASHINGTON -- So it has come to this: The United States is under such threat that the courts of the country can no longer be trusted. Justice in this troubled time must be dispensed by secret military panels operating in any part of the world. There will be no appeals.

This is the land of the free? Are we in this much trouble? These are checks and balances? The executive branch, in this case the president, will have the sole power to take any suspect from any state or court and turn that suspect over to another part of the executive branch, the Army, for a secret trial under secret rules.

I must have missed something in American history. These words, from the military order the commander in chief signed last Tuesday, read like the manifesto of a police state or, to be more polite, a national security state:

"With respect to any individual subject to this order -- (1) military tribunals shall have exclusive jurisdiction with respect to offenses by the individual; and (2) the individual shall not be privileged to seek any remedy or maintain any proceeding, directly or indirectly, or to have any such remedy or proceeding sought on the individual's behalf, in (i) any court of the United States, or any state thereof, (ii) any court of any foreign nation, or (iii) any international tribunal."

The order also states that all decisions about which individuals shall be subject to this treatment will be made by the commander in chief alone. The definition of who will be subject will be whether there "is reason to believe" the individual is or was a member of al-Qaida, or committed or conspired to commit acts of international terrorism or knowingly harbored other individuals linked to terrorism. "Reason to believe" is in the eye of the beholder, the single, all-powerful commander in chief.

The commander made his own declaration, saying this: "I find ... it is not practicable to apply in military commissions under this order the principles of law and the rules of evidence generally recognized in the trial of criminal cases in the United States district courts. ... Issuance of this order is necessary to meet this emergency."

The short phrase he used to justify such measures was "an extraordinary emergency." I would offer another short phrase to describe this: "military government."

This is, to be sure, not the first time that the United States has forgotten what it is about and resorted to military justice to punish suspects. But the White House was able to come up with only two precedents: the Army trial of suspects in the assassination of President Lincoln, which came up with a verdict and sentences not universally accepted; and the trial of six Germans landed on Long Island by a submarine during World War II.

This is the White House equivalent of "thinking outside the box." Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, seemed quite proud of that, saying: "We have looked at this war very unconventionally and the conventional way of bringing people to justice doesn't apply to these times."

These times. Dangerous times.

And dangerous words. Among the things left in the box are the Constitution of the United States and the right to open trial.

Whatever the threat of these times -- and it is both great and mysterious -- the Bush administration, with significant help from Congress, is using it to rewrite American law and tradition. The new rules make it easier to conduct wiretaps and searches of homes, detain and deport people accused of nothing, and monitor conversations between suspects and their lawyers. Such things merit debate.

The president also, on Nov. 1, signed an executive order giving himself the power to prevent historians and others from ever inspecting any of the records of recent presidents, including himself. He now has complete control over what we will officially know or not know about what the U.S. government is doing in our name in this extraordinary time.

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