Sidestepping the law

This is what happens when you get too high and mighty. This administration ignored basic human rights issues and tried to slip around the system and the courts. Eventually, they were caught up in their own arrogance. Here's what really happened.

By denying Gitmo detainees basic legal protections, the Bush administration forced the high court to act.

As Charles Fried, solicitor general in the Reagan administration, has reportedly put it, the Bush administration "badly overplayed a winning hand." Bush and his advisers so flouted ordinary, and old, ideas of justice and liberty that they put the Supreme Court in an impossible position: either rubber-stamp denials of due process to detainees who say they were seized by mistake, or step in and create a new set of problems by making rules on a slow, messy, case-by-case basis. In effect, that's what happened last week when the court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush. If ever there was proof of the adage "hard cases make bad law," this is it.

Historically, prisoners of war have no rights in U.S. courts. But even so, they are released when the war ends. The War on Terror has no foreseeable end. What's more, since the terrorists don't wear uniforms, it can be hard to discern who the real enemies are. Under the four 1949 Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war have some rights. But after 9/11, hard-liners in the administration decided that terror suspects brought to Guantánamo and various secret prisons around the world lacked any of the protections of the Geneva accords because they were "unlawful combatants."

The potential for unfairness was so great that last week the Supreme Court stepped in and struck down the federal laws, ruling that terror detainees must be given full access to federal courts, under the ancient principle of habeas corpus, which roughly means that government cannot hold you without proving to the courts a legal basis for the detention.

The only clear outcome is the certainty of enduring confusion: by trying to sidestep the most basic legal protections for detainees at the outset, the Bush administration guaranteed years of legal wrangling.

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