Wash. Post, NY Times, Reuters provided uninformative coverage of detainee bill signing

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Although Washington Post, New York Times, and Reuters reports on President Bush's signing of the Military Commissions Act included general criticism of the legislation, they were all silent on its most controversial provision: allowing the president to detain noncitizens in the United States or abroad for any reason, indefinitely.

In their October 18 coverage of President Bush's signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Reuters reported general Democratic criticism of the bill -- that it "undercuts our freedoms" and discards "a core value of American law" -- but omitted the specific basis for these objections. In particular, all three outlets left out one or more key aspects of the most controversial provision in the bill, which effectively grants the president the authority to detain any noncitizen in the United States or outside its borders for any reason, indefinitely, as Media Matters for America has repeatedly noted.

Further, the Post uncritically quoted House Majority Leader John Boehner's (R-OH) claim that "Capitol Hill Democrats have yet to offer any solutions or formulate any serious national security policy on how to keep America safe," while leaving out the fact that, in the case of the detainee legislation, almost all Senate Democrats voted for a substitute bill sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jack Reed (D-RI). Most Democrats also voted for three Democratic amendments to the Military Commissions Act, as well as an amendment sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) that would have preserved the right of detainees to challenge their detention in federal court.

The administration and its Republican supporters have characterized the Military Commissions Act as pertaining specifically to the treatment and prosecution of "key terrorist leaders" as part of a larger effort to ensure that "those believed to have orchestrated the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people on 9/11 will face justice." But while such characterizations leave the impression that the bill is narrowly focused on terrorism suspects, it in fact has much broader implications, as Media Matters has noted

[T]he detention legislation does not simply authorize military commissions to try terrorism suspects or regulate interrogation rules. It also denies the right of non-citizens designated by the government as "unlawful enemy combatants" to challenge their detention in federal civilian court through writs of habeas corpus, allowing only a limited right to challenge their status as unlawful enemy combatant. But even that more limited right of challenge can be delayed by the government indefinitely by postponing the detainee's initial hearing to review that designation. In other words, the bill provides no time limit by which suspects deemed unlawful enemy combatants must receive a hearing on their designation, in effect, granting the president the authority to designate any non-citizen an unlawful enemy combatant for any reason for the duration of the "war on terror."

Indeed, as Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) made clear in response to Bush's signing of the bill, this measure permits the government to detain people seized on U.S. soil "indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court." From Feingold's October 17 statement:

The legislation signed by the President today violates basic principles and values of our constitutional system of government. It allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court. And the new law would permit an individual to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and even allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death.

But just as major print outlets ignored these broader implications when the legislation was before Congress, they continued to fail in this regard as the bill crossed Bush's desk.

In the lead paragraph of his October 18 article on the bill signing, Post staff writer Michael A. Fletcher reported that Bush "enacted controversial changes in the system of interrogating and prosecuting terrorism suspects yesterday, setting the rules for the trials of key al-Qaeda members in a step that he says will help protect the nation." Fletcher went on to provide slightly more detail:

The new law imposes tight limits on defendants' traditional courtroom rights, including restrictions on their ability to examine the evidence against them, to challenge their incarceration and to exclude evidence gained through witness coercion.

Later in the article, he quoted Sen. Patrick J. Leahy's (D-VT) general criticism of the bill:

Some Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Bush for signing a measure that they say violates the nation's civil liberties protections. "It is a sad day when the rubber-stamp Congress undercuts our freedoms, assaults our Constitution and lets the terrorists achieve something they could never win on the battlefield," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

But at no point in the article did Fletcher explain to his readers that the bill does not simply affect the rights of "key al-Qaeda leaders," but rather any noncitizen the president simply deems an "unlawful enemy combatant." Moreover, while Fletcher noted that the law "imposes tight limits on defendants' traditional courtroom rights," he ignored the larger point that it imposes no deadline for the government to bring terrorism suspects before a review board, allowing the government to hold those it deems unlawful enemy combatants indefinitely without a hearing.

In his October 17 article, Reuters writer Steve Holland also glossed over the most controversial aspects of the bill:

President George W. Bush signed a law on Tuesday allowing tough CIA interrogation and military trials for terrorism suspects, triggering bitter election-year denunciations from Democrats.

[...]

Critics and legal experts have predicted the law will draw vigorous court challenges and could be struck down for violating rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

They cited provisions that strip foreign suspects of the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts and what they described as unfair rules for military trials.

But Holland failed to make clear that, under the bill, the president can declare noncitizens living legally in the United States -- not just "foreign suspects" -- to be "unlawful enemy combatants" and hold them indefinitely without the "right to challenge their detentions" before any ruling body. Further, while Holland quoted from Feingold's response to the bill signing, he omitted his specific objection: that the legislation "allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court." From the article:

"I am deeply disappointed that Congress enacted this law," said Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. "We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history."

The October 18 article by Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg did note that the bill's revocation of habeas corpus rights extends to noncitizens living here legally:

President Bush signed legislation Tuesday that creates new rules for prosecuting and interrogating terrorism suspects, a move Mr. Bush said would enable the Central Intelligence Agency to resume a once-secret program to question the most dangerous enemy operatives in the war on terror.

[...]

The law sets up a system of military commissions for trying terrorism suspects that would allow evidence to be withheld from defendants in certain instances. It also strips the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear petitions from noncitizens for writs of habeas corpus, effectively preventing detainees from going to court to challenge their confinement.

Nonetheless, Stolberg still failed to explain the broader point that the bill not only strips "unlawful enemy combatants" of their habeas corpus rights, it also allows the government to delay any hearing on their detentions indefinitely. Like the Post, Stolberg quoted only Leahy's general objections to the legislation:

"Congress had no justification for suspending the writ of habeas corpus, a core value in American law, in order to avoid judicial review that prevents government abuse," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

By contrast to the Post, Times, and Reuters, Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler included Feingold's substantive criticism of the bill in her October 17 article on the bill signing:

Civil libertarians and leading Democrats decried the law as a violation of American values. The American Civil Liberties Union said it was "one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted in American history." Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said, "We will look back on this day as a stain on our nation's history."

"It allows the government to seize individuals on American soil and detain them indefinitely with no opportunity to challenge their detention in court," Feingold said. "And the new law would permit an individual to be convicted on the basis of coerced testimony and even allow someone convicted under these rules to be put to death."

An October 17 article by McClatchy Newspapers reporter Ron Hutcheson quoted similar criticism of the bill by American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero:

The American Civil Liberties Union called the new law unconstitutional, un-American and "one of the worst civil liberties measures ever enacted." Most of the provisions in the law apply only to non-citizens who have been declared "unlawful enemy combatants."

"The president can now -- with the approval of Congress -- indefinitely hold people without charge, take away protections against horrific abuse, put people on trial based on hearsay evidence, authorize trials that can sentence people to death based on testimony literally beaten out of witnesses, and slam shut the courthouse door for habeas petitions (challenging the detentions)," said Anthony Romero, the organization's executive director.

Fletcher's October 18 Post article also reported without challenge Boehner's baseless claim that Democrats "have yet to offer any solutions" on the issue of national security:

With the midterm elections coming on Nov. 7, congressional Republicans immediately seized on the new law, which was opposed by most Democratic lawmakers, as evidence of their commitment to protect the country against terrorist attacks.

"Capitol Hill Democrats have yet to offer any solutions or formulate any serious national security policy on how to keep America safe in a post-9/11 world," House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Some Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Bush for signing a measure that they say violates the nation's civil liberties protections. "It is a sad day when the rubber-stamp Congress undercuts our freedoms, assaults our Constitution and lets the terrorists achieve something they could never win on the battlefield," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

But contrary to Boehner's assertion, congressional Democrats have supported -- and repeatedly attempted to offer -- policy alternatives on national security. For instance, on September 27, almost all Senate Democrats voted for a substitute bill sponsored by Levin and Reed. Further, on September 28, all but one of the 44 Senate Democrats voted in favor of an amendment sponsored by Specter to strike the provision in the Military Commissions Act stripping detainees of their habeas corpus rights. Most Democrats also voted for three other Democratic amendments to the bill. Moreover, when the bill came before the House, Democratic members proposed 15 amendments to the legislation. But as the Post itself reported, the House Rules Committee blocked all of them from reaching the floor.

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