The Senate voted Thursday to bar suspected terrorists being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from challenging their captivity in federal courts, a move that seeks to reverse a landmark Supreme Court decision and heightens the debate about what to do with prisoners captured in the war on terror.
Knight Ridder Newspapers

By a 49-42 vote that broke largely along party lines, the Senate adopted an amendment proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on the defense authorization bill that would strip prisoners at Guantanamo of their right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal courts. Five Democrats voted with the majority, while four Republicans opposed the amendment. Seven Republicans and two Democrats didn't vote.
"We're going back to a model that's worked for over 200 years - that prisoners in a war should not be able to go into court and sue the people that are fighting the war," said Graham, a former military judge.

But the amendment might still draw opposition from the Bush administration because it would require Senate confirmation of the top civilian who's charged with reviewing the Guantanamo detainees' cases and would bar the use of any detainee statement obtained by torture.

The administration had no comment Thursday, but it has opposed efforts by Congress and the courts to oversee the detentions and interrogations of suspected terrorists.

"Congress has been AWOL on this issue, but now we're going to sort out the legal mess we're in," Graham said.

Civil rights groups and others denounced the vote.

"For the Senate to make a big change like this, so hastily without a hearing, is just appalling," said Rear Adm. John Hutson, a retired Navy judge advocate general.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the vote "disgraceful."

"The American military indefinitely detains individuals - and tortures some of them - and the Senate votes to strip them of their rights," Romero said. "It's unbelievable."

Almost 300 of the 500-plus prisoners held in Guantanamo have filed habeas corpus petitions, arguing that they're being held improperly as enemy combatants. Most have been held without charges for more than three years. The Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that detainees were entitled to file such claims.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., called the amendment "a very major mistake" and suggested that he'll try to change it when the Senate returns on Monday.

The House of Representatives version of the defense authorization bill has no provision about Guantanamo, so a conference committee may have to resolve the issue.

Thursday's action comes amid growing debate over how to handle prisoners captured in the war on terror.

Last month, the Senate voted 90-9 to approve an amendment to a different bill that would prohibit "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against anyone held in U.S. custody. That amendment was proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Graham praised it Thursday as a step to "take care of prisoner abuse."

"But we also need to deal with lawsuit abuse," he said. "We need the whole package."

The Bush administration opposes the McCain amendment.

Passage of Graham's amendment surprised some senators after the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he couldn't support it.

"This proposal requires a lot more analysis - it's not the answer," Specter said.

He conceded that Congress has been largely absent in overseeing the detentions and interrogations of prisoners captured since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The Supreme Court took the bull by the horns because Congress had not acted, perhaps because it's too hot to handle," Specter said.

But Graham said he pushed his amendment this week after the Supreme Court decided Monday to review a challenge to the administration's military trials for a handful of prisoners. Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is considering a major habeas corpus case that could determine how Guantanamo cases are handled.

Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., claimed cases filed by Guantanamo captives were clogging courts. While most challenge the legality and facts of detainees' detentions, some complaints also seek better medical treatment or access to lawyers and family members. Graham belittled some of the petitions for seeking "dictionaries and high-speed Internet access."

Gita Gutierrez, a lawyer for six detainees, said that Graham exaggerated the impact of the petitions and that the court system was organized to handle them. She said some of the petitions about medical treatment came from detainees who were handled roughly during a hunger strike.

The Democrats voting for the amendment were Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Ron Wyden of Oregon. The Republicans who were opposed were Specter, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Gordon Smith of Oregon and John Sununu of New Hampshire.