Outside editorial: Are you an 'enemy combatant'?

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2007

A federal appeals court panel has rebuked the abuse of executive power in the detentions of a terrorist suspect on U.S. soil - and rightly so. The 2-1 court majority said that the president cannot put a U.S. legal immigrant in indefinite military imprisonment simply by labeling the person an "enemy combatant."

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The ruling is the latest indictment of the administration's jury-rigged system for war on terror. In 5 ½ years, the system has faced constant legal challenges, lost two Supreme Court cases and yielded only one terrorism conviction - the generous plea deal of David Hicks, an Australian sent home last month from the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Just last week, two Pentagon-selected military judges separately threw out the only two cases set for war-crimes trials at Guantanamo. The administration would do better to follow established international war-crimes law and U.S. legal standards.

Monday's appellate ruling in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals involved the case of Ali al-Marri, a legal resident who now has spent four years in solitary confinement at a military brig in South Carolina. He is the only known person held as an "enemy combatant" on U.S. soil. Before his arrest, al-Marri was living with his family while going to college on a student visa in Peoria, Ill.

The government describes him as an al-Qaida "sleeper agent" and says he is a danger to the United States. The government argued that Congress had barred "enemy combatants" from challenging their detention in federal court. The president, moreover, has broad authority to fight terrorism and protect national security.

The appellate panel disagreed. Its decision affirmed that al-Marri has a constitutionally protected habeas corpus right to challenge his detention. More broadly, the ruling rejects the idea that the president has "inherent" authority to arrest and detain civilians without criminal charges. If the president can have al-Marri locked up without having to prove criminal charges, then any U.S. civilian - like you - also could be held indefinitely.

The court noted that the government has other options: It can criminally prosecute or deport al-Marri. Instead, the government asked the full appellate bench to review the decision.

The president should heed the court's message: He is overstepping his executive authority.

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