“Relaxed Procedural Protections” in Terrorism Cases: What the Military Commissions Debate Is Really About

Eric writes : “We are agreed, yes? That procedural protections in civilian courts are too high for war-on-terror prosecutions? … If yes, then there is just an empirical question of whether we should demand that federal judges relax procedural protections in terrorism cases or use an alternative military-commissions system—a question that it is far too early to answer because there is so far very little evidence as to how this alternative system will perform.”

The flurry of posts on the military commissions seems to me to obscure the elephant sitting in the middle of the room, namely, that the principal “relaxed procedural protection” at issue here—the one that has caused the administration to insist upon newfangled commissions rather than courts-martial all along—is that a great deal of the relevant evidence has been obtained unlawfully.

That is to say, as with most of the great debates in the “War on Terror,” even when the particular dispute is nominally about the legality of military commissions … it’s all about the torture. 

Not only would much of the evidence in these cases be inadmissible because it’s the fruit of coerced testimony, but the administration is hellbent on keeping secret what it has in fact done to the detainees in its control. In any legitimate proceeding—be it court-martial or civilian trial or military commission or even congressional investigation—that information would and should be disclosed. And in a court-martial or civilian trial, there’s a good chance that would happen.  (Wish I could say the same about congressional hearings.)  But that’s nonnegotiable for the Bush administration … and so, the endless debates about military commissions, which are designed largely to obscure the manner in which we obtained the relevant evidence.

The interesting question, then, is whether the McCain or Obama administration would be more willing in 2009 to make transparent what happened during these interrogations—after which perhaps we could figure out whether there is any tribunal in which fair trials could take place, without unreliable evidence gleaned from torture and cruel treatment. (That is to say: It’s awfully difficult to conduct war-crimes trials when a good portion of the evidence was obtained by way of … war crimes.)

(There’s one other big issue, too—namely, that it is not at all clear that a great deal of the conduct alleged against some of the lower-level defendants, such as Hamdan and Khadr (e.g., driving bin Laden, delivering weapons to the front, tossing grenades at soldiers), actually violated any laws of war that were in place at the time of the conduct. But I don’t see why those sorts of questions can’t be resolved fairly, without regard to the nature of the tribunal.)