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President Bush Proposes Military Trial Process for Terror Suspects

September 7, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: They follow reactions to the president’s terror trials proposals.

Judy Woodruff is in charge of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just weeks before Congress goes home for the midterm elections, President Bush yesterday dramatically raised the legal and political stakes in the fight over how to deal with the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

In addition to the 400-plus prisoners already held there, the president said that 14 more would be moved from CIA secret prisons to face justice at Guantanamo. They include three major figures: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 plot; Abu Zubaydah, an aide to Osama bin Laden; and Ramzi Binalshibh, another 9/11 plotter.

The president’s announcement yesterday represented his fullest response to the June Supreme Court decision that overturned the administration’s plan for military tribunals to try the Guantanamo detainees. Now Congress takes up the issue of whether the detainees would be tried under the provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice or by rules that would give government prosecutors far more leeway.

We get our congressional response now from two senators. John Sununu is a New Hampshire Republican. He’s a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And Jack Reed is a Rhode Island Democrat. He’s on the Armed Services Committee.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

And, Senator Reed, to you first.

The president has sent this program, his proposal to the Congress. He’s saying: I need this in order to prosecute these terrorists.

Do you believe this is the right way to go about prosecuting them?

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, currently, Judy, the debate is among Republicans, more so than between Republicans and Democrats.

Senator John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham have pointed out that, in order to provide a — a legitimate process, that modifications must be made to the president’s proposal. That sentiment was echoed today by the uniformed military lawyers who testified before the House of Representatives.

These gentlemen have dedicated their lives to serving their country in uniform, and they understand that this is not just about prosecuting these individuals who committed heinous crimes, but it’s also about ensuring that, if Americans fall into this type of captivity, they will have fair procedures, also.

So, I would take the advice of the uniformed military, the advice that both Senator McCain and Senator Warner, and Senator Graham, are urging on the president.

The proposal's chances in Congress

Sen. John Sununu
(R) New Hampshire
I think there's pretty broad agreement. My guess is, there will be some modification made in -- in at least one, if not both of those areas, before it's sent to the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's our understanding that these senators -- you mentioned McCain -- you mentioned Senator Graham -- are -- are -- have been asked by the Republican leadership to take another look, so that they can try to come up with a compromise.

Let me turn to you, Senator Sununu.

At this point, do you think what the president has proposed is something that you can accept?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU (R), New Hampshire: Well, I think it's unlikely that it would be passed through the House and the Senate in the exact form that the -- the president has put it forward.

And, in fact, though, I -- I think it will be similar to what the president has proposed. The differences that are being discussed really focus on only two areas. I think there's very large agreement among Democrats, Republicans, Senators McCain and Graham, as Senator Reed mentioned, and the White House on all the components, except for the specific rules of evidence and the use of hearsay in a trial.

But other than that, I think there's pretty broad agreement. My guess is, there will be some modification made in -- in at least one, if not both of those areas, before it's sent to the president. But the key is that we get a good statutory framework in place that is consistent with the Supreme Court ruling, so that these trials can begin.

Hearsay evidence

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
We don't want to get in a situation where we pass defective legislation that doesn't really bring these individuals to justice, but simply allows another process of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, and rejection again by the Supreme Court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about those two specific points, because they are going to be getting a lot of attention.

Senator Reed, on the hearsay evidence, where do you come down on that? And -- and where do others in your party come down on that?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I will just speak for myself, but I will echo the comments of the uniformed military officers today, who insisted, in their testimony, that these rules that would disqualify hearsay and also allow examination of the evidence before the tribunal by both sides are the rules that they favor, because they're consistent with not only our international obligations, but also with the legitimate procedure.

And there's another point I think John alluded to, is, we don't want to get in a situation where we pass defective legislation that doesn't really bring these individuals to justice, but simply allows another process of appeals all the way to the Supreme Court, and rejection again by the Supreme Court.

We have got to get this right. I think we can, but it requires modification of the president's proposal. And one final point, too, I think important -- we're talking now about punishing people who have done very heinous things. But they can be detained, regardless of these tribunals. As long as they maintain a -- a threat to the United States, under generally accepted principles of law, they can be detained.

So, we're talking about the issue of how we adequately punish them, not how we keep them out of harm's way, of harming us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator Sununu, let me come back to you on the -- on the point that you yourself raised a minute ago.

Are you, at this point, in agreement with some of the moderates in your own party, who -- who say, have been saying, that they have difficulty, serious difficulty, and want changes in the approach that the administration had been applying, and that is largely included in this approach?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: I have not read Senator Graham's proposal, but I think it's fair to say I certainly have concerns in both of these areas.

There are several things that we want to accomplish. First, we want to set a good example. Senator Reed mentioned, if -- if we're allowing evidence to be used in court that defense attorneys or those on trial can have no access to, can't see, then what is going to happen if American service members or American citizens are taken into custody in another country around the world?

I think it -- it runs against American -- fundamental American beliefs to have someone tried on evidence that they can never see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're in...

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: So, I...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... disagreement with the president on that point?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: Well, I -- I think that there -- there ought to be a way to ensure that this element of due process is -- is provided.

Second, we want to make sure that those that are conducting the prosecutions believe it's a system that will work. Senator Reed mentioned the -- the testimony by the Army Judge Advocate General. And -- and the simple question I would want to pose to those individuals, those responsible for prosecutions at Gitmo, as well, is, with these rules, with these procedures that have been suggested, that would allow sharing of evidence, in some cases in unclassified or summarized form, will this system still allow you to prosecute effectively, to prosecute fully?

And -- and most of those that have been asked that question, both at Gitmo and here in hearings in Congress, have said, yes, we can conduct trials, conduct them effectively, get prosecutions, even with some of these accommodations.

So, there are a couple of areas that need to be addressed. I think they -- they can be addressed. And I think we can get a framework in place that will allow these prosecutions to move forward.

President Bush's attitude

Sen. John Sununu
(R) New Hampshire
Even if we don't yet agree on all the details, we need this legislation, or similar legislation, to be passed, so that prosecutions can begin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that's the case, Senator Reed, then what is -- what is your concern?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, my concern is that the president, just a few weeks before the election, suddenly has transferred prisoners from places around the world to Guantanamo, and now is demanding, as he has so often done, sort of, take it or leave it; it's my way or the highway.

And, frank -- that's not the way to do good legislation. And it does reflect, I think, a consistent position by the administration to treat our international obligations sort of cavalierly. And I think that has led us to lots of problems around the world. It contributed to -- in part to Abu Ghraib.

And it does ultimately jeopardize the safety of our military forces, as Senator Sununu pointed out. And, when you have individuals who are experienced, like Senator McCain and Senator Graham, military experience, and uniformed officers who are saying, we have to abide by these provisions that are generally outlined in the UCMJ, that's compelling.

And, if the White House would quickly accede to that view of the military and of these experienced individual senators, then I think we could get something done rather expeditiously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Sununu, you agree with Senator Reed that the president's attitude is essentially, my way or the highway, and that he is treating these international obligations, in Senator Reed's words, in a cavalier way?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: No. I -- I don't think he's treating them in a cavalier way.

Look, he did the right thing in moving these 14 prisoners to -- to Guantanamo, and -- and suspending the operations of the overseas detention facilities. He has done the right thing in proposing a -- a commission system. Even if we don't yet agree on all the details, we need this legislation, or similar legislation, to be passed, so that prosecutions can begin.

And I think he's done the right thing in saying, we need to move forward with these trials. We need to bring those in Guantanamo Bay for whom we have evidence of their committing and supporting and planning terrorist acts, bring them to trials, and -- and bring them to justice.

I -- I think those are the right things for the president to do, to do at this time. If he had waited two months, waited until after the elections, the critics will -- would have said, well, this is long overdue; he should have done this months ago.

Now is the right time. It's a good starting point. And I think we can get this done in the next couple of weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, at the risk of repeating, and just to clarify, you are not in agreement with him on some of these important points of how these prosecutions would take place?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: I think it's fair to say that, looking at the legislation, I would like to see some modifications. And I think it's likely that some modifications will be made, in either the House or the Senate, before it gets to his desk.

Tight timetable

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
I think we will try to come up with legislation -- and I think Senator Sununu suggests that we can -- that embodies the best principles of this country, without sacrificing the security of this nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Reed, you mentioned politics. You said -- you point out, the president has put this out there two months before the election.

There are observers out there right now who are saying, this puts the Democrats in a tough spot -- the president, Republicans trying to paint the Democrats as soft on terror. And this permits the administration, if Democrats oppose this sort of a strict structure, if you will, of trying these detainees -- if Democrats oppose that, don't you run the risk of falling right into this -- this descriptive, this portrait that the Republicans are trying to paint you into?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think what we have to do is the best possible legislation, not just for the short run, the next several weeks leading up to the election, but in the long run.

And I think what is very significant and very important is that, if we follow the advice of the military officers who have dedicated their life, not only to the armed services, but to military justice, then, we will disagree on these important points with the White House, and will insist, not on a partisan base, but obviously bipartisan basis, led by people like Senator Warner and others, on legislation that will both protect our security, and also give us a legitimate political process, will give us the opportunity in -- in the world to claim that we are true to our principles, without sacrificing our security.

So, I think this is a case where, if we stick to principles, we will be fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're not worried about the Republican mantra right now, and that this -- that Democrats are soft -- I mean, we have heard the term Defeatocrat -- and that the president's proposal here, that it -- it runs the risks, for Democrats, of placing you further into -- painting you further into that corner?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I would be more concerned about the risks that our military, our soldiers, our -- our Marines, our sailors, our air men and women, are running right now in Iraq and across the globe, and also in the future.

And I think, if we're true to -- to their sacrifice, to their dedication, we will do the right thing here; we won't be swayed by what some have characterized as merely political attacks. I think we will try to come up with legislation -- and I think Senator Sununu suggests that we can -- that embodies the best principles of this country, without sacrificing the security of this nation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Sununu, so, what do you think is going to happen here? You said -- I think you said a minute ago that you think a compromise can be reached.

But the president has put a very tight timetable on this. He said he wants it done in the next few weeks, before Congress goes home.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: I don't know what's going to happen.

And -- and, to be very direct, I have spent a good part of today talking to colleagues, trying to get a sense of what they think might happen. I think the most likely process would be for the Armed Services Committee, led by Senator Warner, to put together a package based on the president's proposal, but containing some modifications, a package that can get a very strong, very strong majority of votes in that committee.

And I think that would be a good basis for legislation to be brought to the floor of the Senate. I think, if you have a strong, very strong majority in the Armed Services Committee, you're going to minimize the number of amendments that are offered on the floor, minimize the opportunity for obstruction by -- by either side, and get something done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But with some differences from what the president has proposed?

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: I have said several times, it's just hard to imagine the president's proposal, exactly as he submitted it, passing both the House and the Senate, and ending up on his desk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And -- and...

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: You're going to see some changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator Reed, just quickly, if that is what emerges from Senate Armed Services, is -- would that pass, do you think?

SEN. JACK REED: Oh, I think Senator Sununu has got it just about right.

If Senator Warner and Senator Levin and Senator McCain, Senator Graham and others on the committee can work and constructively respond to the concerns of our uniformed military lawyers, and produce a legislation that has a strong bipartisan support, then, I think it will move quickly through here.

The president could help that, though, by being cooperative, in terms of recognizing the legitimate concerns raised about his proposal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Senator Jack Reed, Senator John Sununu, we thank you very much for being with us.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you.

SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: Thank you.