Restoring the Balance Between Security and Justice, a Response

The following article is posted from the JURIST-Forum, “A National Security Court: Restoring the Balance Between Security and Justice.”

Although I very much enjoyed reading Professor Leila Nadya Sadat’s recent JURIST Forum op-ed Restoring America’s Rights Record, I respectfully disagree with her observations regarding an alternative legal system to try terror suspects. In particular, I was struck by her characterization of such proposals as ‘rights denial’. With respect to my own proposal nothing could be further from the truth. Quite the opposite – my proposal is predicated on a rights-based solution to a problem requiring an immediate, legal answer. Rights denial? Absolutely not. Rights ensuring? Yes. Absolute rights? No. Workable, practical and legal solution to an enormous legal and practical conundrum? Absolutely.

Let me explain.

In advocating the establishment of domestic terror courts I am seeking both a legal and practical solution to the continued detention of thousands of “post 9/11 detainees”. My over-riding concern is for the rule of law and rights of detainees otherwise held, in essence, in indefinite detention. That has been the primary motivation for my proposal.

When I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee (June, 2004) regarding my proposal I suggested that establishing a domestic terror court is the most effective way to begin trying thousands of detainees held by the United States directly or indirectly world-wide. I suggest that the term “GITMO” is misleading. Guantanamo Bay is but one detention facility; what about the detainees held in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Camp Buco? What about detainees held elsewhere in the world either by or on behalf of the US? What about future detainees?

In other words, GITMO must be viewed as a term of art referring to thousands of detainees with an unknown number potentially held in the future. While I suggest there is no “war on terrorism” (an unfortunate and inaccurate term), active and engaged operational counter-terrorism (what has been referred to as “armed conflict short of war”) will directly lead to the continued detention of thousands of individuals. That is the reality of terrorism and counterterrorism. My proposal is in response to that continued and perhaps never-ending reality.

In developing a “rights-based” alternative legal regime I recommend that “where” individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism be tried is but one piece of the puzzle. That puzzle is comprised of three legs: how and when to detainee, how to interrogate and how and where to try. Looking forward: With respect to detention-an individual can be detained only if he is “caught in the act” or if there is reliable, valid and valid intelligence information with respect to his involvement in terrorism. “Round up the usual suspect” and guilt by the association are unconstitutional. They are also enormously problematic from an operational perspective. With respect to interrogations, according to my proposal individuals detained for suspicion of involvement in terrorism will be granted Miranda rights. They will also not be subject to torture no matter what offense they are suspected of. Torture is illegal, immoral and does not lead to actionable intelligence.

As to where to try the detainees. I suggest that the military commissions are an unworkable solution. Similarly, a suggested international treaty based terror court is presently unfeasible given a fundamental disagreement by the international community to agree on a definition of terrorism. That leaves two solutions-Article III courts and domestic terror courts.

The fundamental differences between Article III courts and my proposed domestic terror court is with respect to the introduction of classified intelligence information in camera and bench, rather than jury, trials. With respect to the former, the defendant’s 8th Amendment right to confront his accuser will be balanced with the State’s absolute requirement to protect intelligence sources. Is this problematic? It most certainly is; of that, there is no doubt. However, it is critical to emphasize that this exception will only be implemented in those cases where the available criminal evidence is insufficient for conviction. In other words, if the prosecutor is convinced that conviction does not require intelligence information the case will be solely based on criminal evidence therefore preserving the defendant’s right to confront. However, in those cases where the criminal evidence is insufficient the domestic terror court paradigm will enable introduction of classified information.

The judge, in such occurrences, will “wear” two hats-that of judge and that of defense counsel. Furthermore, the judge will proactively seek to de-classify otherwise classified information thereby enabling the defendant to cross examine his accuser. While this will not be possible in all cases, the judges “mandate” is to minimize those cases where classified information is introduced. While this is not a “perfect solution” it seeks to balance between two powerful competing interests by suggesting a workable solution.

With respect to bench, rather than jury trials I suggest that convening thousands of American citizens to sit as a “jury of peers” of suspected terrorists and expecting them to understand enormously complicated intelligence information and not be fearful of “jury intimidation” is an all but impractical solution. Not only logistically (in the words of the former President of the Israel Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, “the logistic considerations of the executive must not serve as a barrier to the freedom of the individual”) but legally from the perspective of protecting the detainee-defendants rights. Bench trials-in my proposal by a re-structured FISA Court-with appeal to the US Court of Appeals would far more effectively preserve and protect the rights of the detainee than jury trials. Trial by jury of thousands of detainees will undoubtedly be inordinately slower than bench trials thereby continuing to deny the defendant basic judicial rights.

That will be the true and continuing “rights denial” Prof Sadat suggests in her commentary.

I do agree with Prof Sadat that a discussion on this topic must be held and quickly so for the existing paradigm is unworkable. The debate regarding this question must be robust and candid. It must include policy and decision makers, academics, members of the Bar, civil rights organizations and the public. The over-riding principle is respect for the rule of law with an understanding that balancing between the legitimate rights of the individual with the equally legitimate national security rights of the state is the essence of a democracy.

Cross posted on National Security Advisors