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Military Commissions Act of 2006

Location: Washington, DC

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


Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, I thank my dear friend and colleague from West Virginia.

I am proud to be sponsoring this amendment with the senior Senator from West Virginia. He is absolutely right that Congress has abrogated its oversight responsibilities, and one way to reverse that troubling trend is to adopt a sunset provision in this bill. We did it in the PATRIOT Act, and that allowed us to make important revisions to the bill that reflected our experience about what worked and what didn't work during the previous 5 years. We should do that again with this important piece of legislation.

It is important to note that this is not a conventional war we are fighting, as has been noted oftentimes by our President and on the other side of the aisle. We don't know when this war against terrorism might end. There is no emperor to sign a surrender document. As a consequence, unless we build into our own processes some mechanism to oversee what we are doing, then we are going to have an open-ended situation, not just for this particular President but for every President for the foreseeable future. And we will not have any formal mechanism to require us to take a look and to make sure it is being done right.

This amendment would make a significant improvement to the existing legislation, and it is one of those amendments that would, in normal circumstances, I believe, garner strong bipartisan support. Unfortunately, we are not in normal circumstances.

Let me take a few minutes to speak more broadly about the bill before us.

I may have only been in this body for a short while, but I am not naive to the political considerations that go along with many of the decisions we make here. I realize that soon--perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow--we will adjourn for the fall. The campaigning will begin in earnest. There are going to be 30-second attack ads and negative mail pieces criticizing people who don't vote for this legislation as caring more about the rights of terrorists than the protection of Americans. And I know that this vote was specifically designed and timed to add more fuel to the fire.

Yet, while I know all of this, I am still disappointed because what we are doing here today, a debate over the fundamental human rights of the accused, should be bigger than politics. This is serious and this is somber, as the President noted today.

I have the utmost respect for my colleague from Virginia. It saddens me to stand and not be foursquare with him. I don't know a more patriotic individual or anybody I admire more. When the Armed Services bill that was originally conceived came out, I thought to myself: This is a proud moment in the Senate. I thought: Here is a bipartisan piece of work that has been structured and well thought through that we can all join together and support to make sure we are taking care of business.

The fact is, although the debate we have been having on this floor has obviously shown we have some ideological differences, the truth is we could have settled most of these issues on habeas corpus, on this sunset provision, on a whole host of issues. The Armed Services Committee showed us how to do it.

All of us, Democrats and Republicans, want to do whatever it takes to track down terrorists and bring them to justice as swiftly as possible. All of us want to give our President every tool necessary to do this, and all of us were willing to do that in this bill. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to the American people.

In the 5 years the President's system of military tribunals has existed, the fact is not one terrorist has been tried, not one has been convicted, and in the end, the Supreme Court of the United States found the whole thing unconstitutional because we were rushing through a process and not overseeing it with sufficient care. Which is why we are here today.

We could have fixed all this several years ago in a way that allows us to detain and interrogate and try suspected terrorists while still protecting the accidentally accused from spending their lives locked away in Guantanamo Bay. Easily. This was not an either-or question. We could do that still.


Mr. OBAMA. I will conclude, then. I appreciate the Senator from Virginia.

Instead of allowing this President--or any President--to decide what does and does not constitute torture, we could have left the definition up to our own laws and to the Geneva Conventions, as we would have if we passed the bill that the Armed Services committee originally offered.

Instead of detainees arriving at Guantanamo and facing a Combatant Status Review Tribunal that allows them no real chance to prove their innocence with evidence or a lawyer, we could have developed a real military system of justice that would sort out the suspected terrorists from the accidentally accused.

And instead of not just suspending, but eliminating, the right of habeas corpus--the seven century-old right of individuals to challenge the terms of their own detention, we could have given the accused one chance--one single chance--to ask the Government why they are being held and what they are being charged with.

But politics won today. Politics won. The administration got its vote, and now it will have its victory lap, and now they will be able to go out on the campaign trail and tell the American people that they were the ones who were tough on the terrorists.

And yet, we have a bill that gives the terrorist mastermind of 9/11 his day in court, but not the innocent people we may have accidentally rounded up and mistaken for terrorists--people who may stay in prison for the rest of their lives.

And yet, we have a report authored by sixteen of our own Government's intelligence agencies, a previous draft of which described, and I quote, ``..... actions by the United States government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay .....''

And yet, we have al-Qaida and the Taliban regrouping in Afghanistan while we look the other way. We have a war in Iraq that our own Government's intelligence says is serving as al-Qaida's best recruitment tool. And we have recommendations from the bipartisan 9/11 commission that we still refuse to implement 5 years after the fact.

The problem with this bill is not that it is too tough on terrorists. The problem with this bill is that it is sloppy. And the reason it is sloppy is because we rushed it to serve political purposes instead of taking the time to do the job right.

I have heard, for example, the argument that it should be military courts, and not Federal judges, who should make decisions on these detainees. I actually agree with that.

The problem is that the structure of the military proceedings has been poorly thought through. Indeed, the regulations that are supposed to be governing administrative hearings for these detainees, which should have been issued months ago, still haven't been issued. Instead, we have rushed through a bill that stands a good chance of being challenged once again in the Supreme Court.

This is not how a serious administration would approach the problem of terrorism. I know the President came here today and was insisting that this is supposed to be our primary concern. He is absolutely right it should be our primary concern--which is why we should be approaching this with a somberness and seriousness that this administration has not displayed with this legislation.

Now let me make clear--for those who plot terror against the United State, I hope God has mercy on their soul, because I certainly do not.

For those who our Government suspects of terror, I support whatever tools are necessary to try them and uncover their plot.

We also know that some have been detained who have no connection to terror whatsoever. We have already had reports from the CIA and various generals over the last few years saying that many of the detainees at Guantanamo shouldn't have been there--as one U.S. commander of Guantanamo told the Wall Street Journal, ``Sometimes, we just didn't get the right folks.'' And we all know about the recent case of the Canadian man who was suspected of terrorist connections, detained in New York, sent to Syria, and tortured, only to find out later that it was all a case of mistaken identity and poor information. In the future, people like this may never have a chance to prove their innocence. They may remain locked away forever.

The sad part about all of this is that this betrayal of American values is unnecessary.

We could have drafted a bipartisan, well-structured bill that provided adequate due process through the military courts, had an effective review process that would've prevented frivolous lawsuits being filed and kept lawyers from clogging our courts, but upheld the basic ideals that have made this country great.

Instead, what we have is a flawed document that in fact betrays the best instincts of some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle--those who worked in a bipartisan fashion in the Armed Services Committee to craft a bill that we could have been proud of. And they essentially got steamrolled by this administration and by the imperatives of November 7.

That is not how we should be doing business in the U.S. Senate, and that is not how we should be prosecuting this war on terrorism. When we are sloppy and cut corners, we are undermining those very virtues of America that will lead us to success in winning this war. At bare minimum, I hope we can at least pass this provision so that cooler heads can prevail after the silly season of politics is over.

I conclude by saying this: Senator Byrd has spent more time in this Chamber than many of us combined. He has seen the ebb and flow of politics in this Nation. He understands that sometimes we get caught up in the heat of the moment. The design of the Senate has been to cool those passions and to step back and take a somber look and a careful look at what we are doing.

Passions never flare up more than during times where we feel threatened. I strongly urge, despite my great admiration for one of the sponsors of the underlying bill, that we accept this extraordinarily modest amendment that would allow us to go back in 5 years' time and make sure what we are doing serves American ideals, American values, and ultimately will make us more successful in prosecuting the war on terror about which all of us are concerned.

Thank you, Mr. President.


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