By Jeremy Spitz
Last Friday, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006, a bill extending and legitimizing presidential power to deal with "alien unlawful enemy combatants." The bill gives the president the authority to identify enemy combatants, set up military commissions to try those detained and the authority to impose any sentence on prisoners.
Heather Stephens, publicity director for the UC Santa Cruz College Democrats, sees the bill as letting the Bush administration off the hook for what would ordinarily be deemed improper practice.
"The administration does something illegal, and then changes the law so it’s not illegal anymore," Stephens said. Kelly Hayes, president of the UCSC College Republicans, is in favor of the bill.
"You need to be careful with human rights," Hayes said. "But if it will help keep things efficient, especially with interrogation, then I’m all for it."
Other provisions of the 96-page bill address questions of how detainees will be handled.
The act maintains that Article III of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which banned torture in all forms, is, "not a source of judicially enforceable individual rights," and therefore gives interpretation of the accords to the president.
The bill’s language leaves much regarding the questioning of detainees open to interpretation, a point of contention among the bill’s critics.
The president sought the bill as a legislative base to ensure the legality of the administration’s tactics in the post 9-11 war on terror.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that military tribunals set up by the Bush administration were in violation of the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The legislation would also strip courts of jurisdiction to hear or consider a writ of habeas corpus (petition to seek release from unlawful detention) by any non-citizen determined by the president to be an enemy combatant.
Habeas corpus provisions have long been recognized as a safeguard against improper state action. The U.S. Constitution ensures the right in Article 1, Section 9, though it does mention that such rights may be suspended in cases of "rebellion or invasion."
The bill also strikes down independent judicial review, giving the executive branch unprecedented power in regards to interrogation tactics. Its provisions would apply retroactively, affecting everyone detained after 9-11.
In an article published in the Turkish newspaper Zaman, UCSC Professor of Politics Ronnie Lipshutz argued that the new bill gives the president the authority to legalize torture.
Lipschutz told City on a Hill Press that he was surprised by Congress’ decision to pass the bill.
"Its all sort of alarming," Lipschutz said. "The fact that Congress can strip the courts of jurisdiction is an eye-opener."
The bill’s supporters maintain that the increased presidential power is important for foiling terrorist plots."I think it’s necessary in the time we’re in," Hayes said.
The act is due to arrive on the president’s desk sometime this week, where he has made it clear he will sign the bill into law. Groups like Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Law have pledged to challenge the bill’s constitutionality.
Stephens shares many Democrats’ worries that the bill sets a dangerous precendent and gives one person too much power.
"The federal balance of power is in more danger than it has ever been," Stephens said. "There is no one to step in and say that what they are doing is wrong."