Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Habeas Corpus Amendment

On the the Habeas Corpus Amendment
by Barack Obama
Floor Statement
84164On the the Habeas Corpus Amendment — Floor StatementBarack Obama

Mr. President, I would like to address the habeas corpus amendment that is on the floor and that we just heard a lengthy debate about between Senator Specter and Senator Warner.

A few years ago, I gave a speech in Boston that people talk about from time to time. In that speech, I spoke about why I love this country, why I love America, and what I believe sets this country apart from so many other nations in so many areas. I said:

That is the true genius of America—a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. . . .

Without hearing a sudden knock on the door. I bring this up because what is at stake in this bill, and in the amendment that is currently being debated, is the right, in some sense, for people who hear that knock on the door and are placed in detention because the Government suspects them of terrorist activity to effectively challenge their detention by our Government.

Now, under the existing rules of the Detainee Treatment Act, court review of anyone's detention is severely restricted. Fortunately, the Supreme Court in Hamdan ensured that some meaningful review would take place. But in the absence of Senator Specter's amendment that is currently pending, we will essentially be going back to the same situation as if the Supreme Court had never ruled in Hamdan, a situation in which detainees effectively have no access to anything other than the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, or the CSRT.

Now, I think it is important for all of us to understand exactly the procedures that are currently provided for under the CSRT. I have actually read a few of the transcripts of proceedings under the CSRT. And I can tell you that oftentimes they provide detainees no meaningful recourse if the Government has the wrong guy.

Essentially, reading these transcripts, they proceed as follows: The Government says: You are a member of the Taliban. And the detainee will say: No, I'm not. And then the Government will not ask for proof from the detainee that he is not. There is no evidence that the detainee can offer to rebut the Government's charge.

The Government then moves on and says: And on such and such a date, you perpetrated such and such terrorist crime. And the detainee says: No, I didn't. You have the wrong guy. But again, he has no capacity to place into evidence anything that would rebut the Government's charge. And there is no effort to find out whether or not what he is saying is true.

And it proceeds like that until effectively the Government says, OK, that is the end of the tribunal, and he goes back to detention. Even if there is evidence that he was not involved in any terrorist activity, he may not have any mechanism to introduce that evidence into the hearing.

Now, the vast majority of the folks in Guantanamo, I suspect, are there for a reason. There are a lot of dangerous people. Particularly dangerous are people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Ironically, those are the guys who are going to get real military procedures because they are going to be charged by the Government. But detainees who have not committed war crimes—or where the Government's case is not strong—may not have any recourse whatsoever.

The bottom line is this: Current procedures under the CSRT are such that a perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government's case and has no way of proving his innocence.

I would like somebody in this Chamber, somebody in this Government, to tell me why this is necessary. I do not want to hear that this is a new world and we face a new kind of enemy. I know that. I know that every time I think about my two little girls and worry for their safety—when I wonder if I really can tuck them in at night and know that they are safe from harm. I have as big of a stake as anybody on the other side of the aisle and anybody in this administration in capturing terrorists and incapacitating them. I would gladly take up arms myself against any terrorist threat to make sure my family is protected.

But as a parent, I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.

This is not just an entirely fictional scenario, by the way. We have already had reports by the CIA and various generals over the last few years saying that many of the detainees at Guantanamo should not have been there. As one U.S. commander of Guantanamo told the Wall Street Journal:

Sometimes, we just didn't get the right folks.

We all know about the recent case of the Canadian man who was suspected of terrorist connections, detained in New York, sent to Syria—through a rendition agreement—tortured, only to find out later it was all a case of mistaken identity and poor information.

In this war, where terrorists can plot undetected from within our borders, it is absolutely vital that our law enforcement agencies are able to detain and interrogate whoever they believe to be a suspect, and so it is understandable that mistakes will be made and identities will be confused. I don't blame the Government for that. This is an extraordinarily difficult war we are prosecuting against terrorists. There are going to be situations in which we cast too wide a net and capture the wrong person.

But what is avoidable is refusing to ever allow our legal system to correct these mistakes. By giving suspects a chance—even one chance—to challenge the terms of their detention in court, to have a judge confirm that the Government has detained the right person for the right suspicions, we could solve this problem without harming our efforts in the war on terror one bit.

Let me respond to a couple of points that have been made on the other side. You will hear opponents of this amendment say it will give all kinds of rights to terrorist masterminds, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But that is not true. The irony of the underlying bill as it is written is that someone like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is going to get basically a full military trial, with all of the bells and whistles. He will have counsel, he will be able to present evidence, and he will be able to rebut the Government's case. The feeling is that he is guilty of a war crime and to do otherwise might violate some of our agreements under the Geneva Conventions. I think that is good, that we are going to provide him with some procedure and process. I think we will convict him, and I think he will be brought to justice. I think justice will be carried out in his case.

But that won't be true for the detainees who are never charged with a terrorist crime, who have not committed a war crime. Under this bill, people who may have been simply at the wrong place at the wrong time—and there may be just a few—will never get a chance to appeal their detention. So, essentially, the weaker the Government's case is against you, the fewer rights you have. Senator Specter's amendment would fix that, while still ensuring that terrorists like Mohammed are swiftly brought to justice.

You are also going to hear a lot about how lawyers are going to file all kinds of frivolous lawsuits on behalf of detainees if habeas corpus is in place. This is a cynical argument because I think we could get overwhelming support in this Chamber right now for a measure that would restrict habeas to a one-shot appeal that would be limited solely to whether someone was legally detained or not. I am not interested in allowing folks at Guantanamo to complain about whether their cell is too small or whether the food they get is sufficiently edible or to their tastes. That is not what this is about. We can craft a habeas bill that says the only question before the court is whether there is sufficient evidence to find that this person is truly an unlawful enemy combatant and belongs in this detention center. We can restrict it to that. And although I have seen some of those amendments floating around, those were not amendments that were admitted during this debate. It is a problem that is easily addressed. It is not a reason for us to wholesale eliminate habeas corpus.

Finally, you will hear some Senators argue that if habeas is allowed, it renders the CSRT process irrelevant because the courts will embark on de novo review, meaning they will completely retry these cases, take new evidence. So whatever findings were made in the CSRT are not really relevant because the court is essentially going to start all over again.

I actually think some of these Senators are right on this point. I believe we could actually set up a system in which a military tribunal is sufficient to make a determination as to whether someone is an enemy combatant and would not require the sort of traditional habeas corpus that is called for as a consequence of this amendment, where the court's role is simply to see whether proper procedures were met. The problem is that the way the CSRT is currently designed is so insufficient that we can anticipate the Supreme Court overturning this underlying bill, once again, in the absence of habeas corpus review.

I have had conversations with some of the sponsors of the underlying bill who say they agree that we have to beef up the CSRT procedures. Well, if we are going to revisit the CSRT procedures to make them stronger and make sure they comport with basic due process, why not leave habeas corpus in place until we have actually fixed it up to our satisfaction? Why rush through it 2 days before we are supposed to adjourn? Because some on the other side of the aisle want to go campaign on the issue of who is tougher on terrorism and national security.

Since 9/11, Americans have been asked to give up certain conveniences and civil liberties—long waits in airport security lines, random questioning because of a foreign-sounding last name—so that the Government can defeat terrorism wherever it may exist. It is a tough balance to strike. I think we have to acknowledge that whoever was in power right now, whoever was in the White House, whichever party was in control, that we would have to do some balancing between civil liberties and our need for security and to get tough on those who would do us harm.

Most of us have been willing to make some sacrifices because we know that, in the end, it helps to make us safer. But restricting somebody's right to challenge their imprisonment indefinitely is not going to make us safer. In fact, recent evidence shows it is probably making us less safe.

In Sunday's New York Times, it was reported that previous drafts of the recently released National Intelligence Estimate, a report of 16 different Government intelligence agencies, describe:

. . . actions by the United States Government that were determined to have stoked the jihad movement, like the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. . . .

This is not just unhelpful in our fight against terror, it is unnecessary. We don't need to imprison innocent people to win this war. For people who are guilty, we have the procedures in place to lock them up. That is who we are as a people. We do things right, and we do things fair.

Two days ago, every Member of this body received a letter, signed by 35 U.S. diplomats, many of whom served under Republican Presidents. They urged us to reconsider eliminating the rights of habeas corpus from this bill, saying:

To deny habeas corpus to our detainees can be seen as a prescription for how the captured members of our own military, diplomatic, and NGO personnel stationed abroad may be treated. . . . The Congress has every duty to insure their protection, and to avoid anything which will be taken as a justification, even by the most disturbed minds, that arbitrary arrest is the acceptable norm of the day in the relations between nations, and that judicial inquiry is an antique, trivial and dispensable luxury.

The world is watching what we do today in America. They will know what we do here today, and they will treat all of us accordingly in the future—our soldiers, our diplomats, our journalists, anybody who travels beyond these borders. I hope we remember this as we go forward. I sincerely hope we can protect what has been called the "great writ"—a writ that has been in place in the Anglo-American legal system for over 700 years.

Mr. President, this should not be a difficult vote. I hope we pass this amendment because I think it is the only way to make sure this underlying bill preserves all the great traditions of our legal system and our way of life.

I yield the floor.