In a stinging blow to the Bush administration, the Supreme Court has ruled prisoners in Guantanamo Bay can challenge their detention in civilian federal courts. The ruling marked the third time in four years the Supreme Court has ruled against the Bush administration concerning the rights of Guantanamo prisoners. We speak to Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of detainees at Guantanamo. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The Supreme Court has dealt a stinging blow to the Bush administration. In a five-four decision Thursday, the Court held that prisoners in Guantanamo Bay have the constitutional right to challenge their detention in civilian federal courts. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 had stripped the prisoners of their habeas corpus rights. Some of the prisoners have been held without charge for more than six years.
Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the four liberal justices on the Court to provide the majority opinion and wrote, “The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” But dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts said the system at Guantanamo included “the most generous set of procedural protections ever afforded aliens detained by this country as enemy combatants.”
The ruling marked the third time in four years the Supreme Court has ruled against the Bush administration concerning the rights of Guantanamo prisoners. President Bush, speaking from Italy, said he did not agree with the decision.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It’s a deeply divided court, and I strongly agree with those who dissented. We’ll study this opinion, and we’ll do so with this in mind: to determine whether or not additional legislation might be appropriate, so that we can safely say or truly say to the American people, “We’re doing everything we can to protect you.”
AMY GOODMAN: Human rights groups across the world, however, have welcomed the Supreme Court decision. We’re joined now in the firehouse studio by Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents dozens of prisoners at Guantanamo.
Welcome to Democracy Now! This is your case. Talk about it.
VINCENT WARREN: Thanks so much for having me. This, Juan and Amy, is one of the largest cases with respect to constitutional rights and certainly with respect to the habeas corpus of the rights of the detainees in recent memory. The Supreme Court gave the detainees an almost unconditional win in terms of vindicating their rights. And the argument that we’ve been making for the last six-and-a-half years since we filed the first habeas corpus case is that when the government flies the American flag over a prison in Guantanamo, the rights of the detainees therein really do extend to the mainland and extend to federal courts. This battle that we’ve been fighting over habeas corpus has literally been not about guilt or innocence; it’s just been about being able to have the claims heard by real judges in federal courts to determine whether George Bush has detained them legally or not.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this decision does not affect every detainee there, right, but generally, virtually all of them?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, virtually all of them. And it really is aimed at the roughly 260 men who been languishing in Guantanamo for many years but have never had an opportunity to be — to go before a federal court and who haven’t been charged by the Bush administration with anything. They’re just sitting there. Some of those detainees have actually been cleared for release for a couple of years, and they’ve never had an opportunity to say to anyone in authority, “I’ve been detained illegally. I’m factually innocent,” what have you. So this is a wonderful opportunity for them.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And then there are about a dozen detainees that are now already beginning — facing the military commissions. How does it affect them?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, that’s right. Between fifteen and nineteen men are facing military commissions, which are essentially, quote-unquote, "trials," and they are really political show trials with no meaningful due process protections. The ruling is not particularly clear on how it affects them. I think what we can say about the ruling, though, is that Justice Kennedy and the other justices were so harshly critical of the lack of due process, the lack of the ability of men to challenge evidence, to bring forth their own claims. Those are the same problems that exist in the military commissions. And the thing that underlies the entire situation is the specter of torture.
AMY GOODMAN: The Supreme Court, this is the third ruling. Explain how the first ruling didn’t change things, the second ruling didn’t, now we’re on the third. Does this matter, the third ruling in four years?
VINCENT WARREN: Yes. That’s a very good point, and when we heard in the clip President Bush talking about exploring legislative options, that’s precisely what he did after the last two rulings and used Congress as a way to get around the Supreme Court.
Briefly, here’s what happened. The first twenty men were brought to Guantanamo in January of 2002. The Center for Constitutional Rights and other lawyers filed the first habeas corpus petitions in February of 2002. Those cases advanced to the Supreme Court and ended up in a decision called Rasul v. Bush. And in that decision, the argument was that the statutory right to habeas, that is, the federal law that says if you’re detained you have habeas, applied to the men in Guantanamo. In 2004, the Supreme Court says that that law, that federal law, does apply to the men in Guantanamo, and they can go to federal courts. Well, Congress came back in 2005 and passed what was called the Detainee Treatment Act. The Detainee Treatment Act, among other things, literally, quite literally, changed the words in that law to say that it specifically did not apply to men in Guantanamo, which then meant that the men could no longer go to federal court.
In 2006, we were involved in a case called Hamdan. And Hamdan, who people might know, was supposed to be Osama bin Laden’s driver. And he was challenging a military commissions system that was put in place by the Bush administration without congressional approval. In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated the George Bush regime military commissions, saying that he didn’t have congressional approval to do that. So, literally two months later, Congress came back and passed the Military Commissions Act.
Now, the Military Commissions Act did a number of things. The first piece is that they — it established congressional authority to create these military commissions that are moving forward that we call show trials. But the other thing that it did was that it literally said that judges, federal judges, could not hear cases coming from the men in Guantanamo about habeas. So while the earlier Supreme Court said that the men had rights to habeas, the Congress came back and said it doesn’t matter what rights they have, because we’re not going to let federal judges hear those claims. And so, the case that we’ve just won in the Boumediene v. Bush claim —-
AMY GOODMAN: And who is Boumediene?
VINCENT WARREN: Boumediene is a detainee that has been involved in -— he’s representing a group of six detainees, and they’re from Bosnia. Interesting story about him — you hear about George Bush talking about how these men were picked up on the battlefield. Well, Boumediene and his compatriots were actually not picked up on the battlefield. They were accused of threatening to blow up an embassy in Bosnia. They were arrested by the Bosnian police. They were held in jail for three months. The Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina said that there was no evidence to have them detained, because there was no evidence that they were attempting to do this, and ordered them released. The day that they were released, the Bosnian officials turned them over to the US, and they’ve been in Guantanamo ever since.
JUAN GONZALEZ: But the last two times that Congress acted, in 2004, 2006, it was a Republican Congress at the time. And so, there’s — is there an expectation now that there won’t be another effort by the Democratic-controlled Congress now to attempt once again to circumvent a Court decision?
VINCENT WARREN: Well, you know, having been involved in Guantanamo litigation for the last six-and-a-half years, I’m very careful about what my expectations are. I will say that this Congress has a golden opportunity, something that they have not availed themselves of in the past with respect to Guantanamo, to actually make a Supreme Court ruling stick. And for the Democrats that talk about George Bush’s failed policy with respect to Guantanamo, this is the opportunity to resist that. This is the opportunity to say that the Supreme Court has spoken, the rule of law prevails, and we’re not going to mess with it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: There are those, though, who will say that while the Bush administration has been defeated, perhaps finally on this issue, and the system — and the right of habeas corpus has been preserved, effectively for the last six years they’ve been able to do what they wanted.
VINCENT WARREN: For the last six years, the Bush administration has had its way with the rule of law. They really do use the Constitution as an on-off switch. And every time that the Supreme Court switches it on, the Bush administration and Congress switch it off.
AMY GOODMAN: John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, addressed the Supreme Court decision at a news conference in Boston on Thursday.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: It obviously concerns me. These are unlawful combatants. They are not American citizens. But — and I think that we should pay attention to Justice Roberts’ opinion in this decision, but it is a decision the Supreme Court has made. Now we need to move forward. As you know, I always favored closing of Guantanamo Bay, and I still think that we ought to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: John McCain, a torture survivor himself in Vietnam.
VINCENT WARREN: John McCain was the chief sponsor of the Detainee Treatment Act that actually changed the rules after the first decision in 2004.
Here’s what’s going on here. The thing that underlies all of this is the interrogation policies and torture. The reason why the Bush administration has not wanted these men to go to federal court is because — not because they are concerned that the men will be released. Let’s not be — let’s not kid ourselves about that. It is literally about the detainees, in talking about how they’ve been treated, will be clear about the fact that many of them were tortured and abused. So the Bush administration has tried to avoid, by all costs, to have a federal judiciary preside over these cases, so that these issues come out for the public. You know, the Bush administration has been denying for years that they torture. And it’s been mostly the media that has unearthed the depth of the torture that’s happened. And that true story needs to come out.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Vincent Warren, for joining us, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.