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Military Commissions Act or 2006

Location: Washington, DC

MILITARY COMMISSIONS ACT OF 2006 -- (Senate - September 28, 2006)


Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I want to start by complimenting Senators WARNER, MCCAIN and GRAHAM and the work that they did to improve this bill, particularly in two areas.

First, our colleagues did the right thing by rejecting the attempt by the administration to reinterpret, by statute, Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions. That would have been an enormous mistake--and an invitation for other countries to define for themselves what the Geneva Conventions require.

Second, our colleagues were right to reject the use of secret evidence in military commissions. Such a proposal is not consistent with American jurisprudence, and would not have satisfied the requirements of the Supreme Court decision in Hamdan.

Overall, the bill provides a much better framework for trying unlawful enemy combatants than under the flawed order issued by the President. All this is positive, and our three colleagues deserve credit for their good work.

But the bill contains a significant flaw. It limits the right of habeas corpus in a manner that is probably unconstitutional. Don't take my word for it. Listen to the words of a conservative Republican, Kenneth Starr, who used to sit on this nation's second highest court, and is now one of the country's leading appellate advocates, in a letter written to Senator Specter earlier this week:

Article 1, section 9, clause 2 of the United States Constitution provides that ``[t]he privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.'' The United States is neither in a state of rebellion nor invasion. Consequently, it would be problematic for Congress to modify the constitutionally protected writ of habeas corpus under current events.

Accordingly, I believe this bill is likely unconstitutional. I hope that I am wrong. But I fear that I am right, and that we will be back here in a few years debating this issue again.

We had one chance to get this right--to ensure that we don't end up back here again after a new round of litigation. There was no reason to rush. No one challenges our right to detain the high-value prisoners the President just transferred to Guantanamo. We are not about to release them--nor should we.

But rush we did. In the last week, there have been two different versions of the legislation that emerged from closed-door negotiations with the administration. My colleagues may be willing to trust the legal judgment and competence of this administration. But I am not.

Since 9/11, several major cases have gone to the Supreme Court that relate to the laws governing the war on al-Qaida and the President's powers. And the administration has been wrong too many times--wrong about whether habeas corpus rights applied to detainees in Guantanamo Bay, wrong about whether U.S. citizens detained as enemy combatants had a right to meaningful due process, and wrong about whether the military commissions the President established by order were legal. Simply put, I am not willing to trust the administration's legal judgment again. And it is clear that the administration has put its imprint on this legislation in several troubling respects, including in the stripping of habeas rights.

In the struggle in which we are engaged against radical fundamentalists, we must be both tough and smart. This bill is not smart because it risks continued litigation about how we detain and try unlawful enemy combatants.

It is also not smart because it risks continued harm to the image of the United States. The 9/11 Commission concluded that ``[a]llegations that the United States abused prisoners in its custody make it harder to build the diplomatic, political, and military alliances the government will need.'' The recently released National Intelligence Estimate made plain that there are several factors fueling the spread of the jihadist movement, including ``entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness.'' The mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, and concerns about our policies governing detainees at Guantanamo Bay, undoubtedly fuel these grievances and anger against the United States. Our detainee policies have also made it harder for our allies to support our anti-terrorism policies. We have to get this right.

Therefore, even though our colleagues achieved significant improvements, I cannot support this legislation.

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