Questions remain on detainee rights

Attorney General Michael Mukasey Monday urged lawmakers to step into the debate over how the U.S. legal system should handle claims by detainees at the U.S. naval facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, beseeching Congress to help answer difficult questions about the rights that should be afforded to hundreds of enemy combatants.

At a speech in Washington, Mukasey raised several critical issues left unanswered by a Supreme Court ruling last month that gave more than 260 terrorism suspects the right to challenge their detention in American courts.

The attorney general entreated Congress to develop rules for handling classified information in the forthcoming court proceedings, lest they become “a smorgasbord of … information for our enemies.” He also asked lawmakers to prohibit detainees whose home countries would not accept their return from being released inside the United States.

The Bush administration in high-level policy meetings has begun to consider closing the facility at Guantanamo Bay. Where enemy combatants should be housed is touching off furious debate in academic circles and among lawmakers, who are opposing the prospect that detainees be moved from Cuba into maximum-security U.S. prisons in their home states.

“The responsibility of moving forward rests with the legislative and executive branches as much as it does with the judiciary,” Mukasey told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute today.

It remains unclear whether the current Congress could develop a compromise plan that would cover the sensitive issue with only weeks remaining in its legislative calendar. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she expects lawmakers have only five more weeks to legislate this year.

For now, the bulk of the habeas corpus cases in which prisoners are challenging the basis for their detention is being considered in a federal court in the District, where judges are struggling to coordinate procedures for moving forward. The Justice Department has sought further delays while it recruits lawyers to handle the press of litigation but U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan recently warned that patience was wearing thin.

Mukasey, a retired federal court judge himself, said this morning that Congress should weigh in to guard against judges imposing a patchwork of conflicting rules that could produce confusion, more court challenges and even lengthier delays for prisoners who have been held for as long as seven years.

“I am urging Congress to pass legislation to ensure that the proceedings mandated by the Supreme Court are conducted in a responsible and prompt way,” the attorney general said.

Under the Justice plan that Mukasey talked about Monday, the U.S. government could hold prisoners indefinitely so long as the armed conflict with al-Qaida persisted.