Senate Dems plan overhaul of military tribunals bill


Gearing up for a major clash with the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, several key Senate Democrats are planning to overhaul the newly minted legislation governing military tribunals of detainees.

Gearing up for a major clash with the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress, several key Senate Democrats are planning to overhaul the newly minted legislation governing military tribunals of detainees.

Even before it was signed into the law last month, Democrats were criticizing the military commission bill as unconstitutional and a magnet or endless legal challenges.

Defense lawyers working on behalf of military detainees at Guantanamo Bay quickly filed suits with the U.S. District Court challenging the constitutionality of the tribunal bill because it suspends the writ of habeas corpus, a court order that would allow detainees to have the legality of their detention reviewed in court to determine whether they should be released from custody.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is running for president and who, come January, will be the second ranking Democrat on the International Relations Committee, introduced legislation today that would amend the existing law.

Dodd said he’s expecting the legislation to be taken up early next year.

"The bill goes back and undoes what was done," Dodd told The Hill. Dodd was one of the top critics of the military tribunal bill the GOP hashed out with the White House and was signed into law last month.

Dodd’s bill, which currently has no co-sponsors, seeks to give habeas corpus protections to military detainees; bar information that was gained through coercion from being used in trials and empower military judges to exclude hearsay evidence they deem to be unreliable.

Dodd’s bill also narrows the definition of "unlawful enemy combatant" to individuals who directly participate in hostilities against the United States who are not lawful combatants. The legislation would also authorize the U.S. Court of Appeals for the armed forces to review decisions made by the military commissions.

Moreover, Dodd seeks to have an expedited judicial review of the new law to determine the constitutionality of its provisions.

Dodd is the first Democrat to take aim at the controversial military tribunals bill. But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, also said that he is in the process of drafting "major changes" to the legislation.

Among the planned changes are instituting habeas corpus rights for detainees and looking into the current practice of extraordinary rendition.

Leahy is among several other Democrats, including incoming Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who are concerned about the practice of sending suspected terrorists to countries other than the United States for imprisonment and interrogation.

The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said he is going to look into the rendition process.

"I’m not comfortable with the system," Levin said earlier this week. "I think that there's been some significant abuses which have not made us more secure, but have made us less secure and have also perhaps cost us some real allies, as well as not producing particularly useful information. So I think the system needs a thorough review, and as the military would say, a thorough scrubbing."

Another member of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), said he expects Levin to look into the detainee tribunal legislation.

"That is an issue that Sen. Levin not only will think about but bring into a discussion of what can be done," he said.

Congress rushed through the terror-detainee legislation before its election break in response to a Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year that Bush exceeded his authority by establishing military tribunals to try detainees without congressional authorization.

Compromise legislation between the White House and a warring faction of Republicans led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John Warner (R-Va.) passed the Senate by a vote of 65-34. Leahy, Dodd and Durbin voted against the bill.