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Why We Should Not Use Guantanamo Bay To Avoid The Constitution


Thursday, Mar. 07, 2002

What are we fighting for? In the process of liberating Afghanistan from its lawless oppressors, we may be undermining our own position as the champions of the rule of law.

In a case last month here in California - Coalition of Clergy v. Bush - the Administration argued that the Constitution does not bind the United States in our actions against the Guantanamo detainees. The issue is also raised by another case--Rasul v. Bush--pending in federal court in the District of Columbia. The Administration's argument is a mistake, for both principled and practical reasons.

It is wrong for us to deny basic constitutional protections to those who are in our custody. Moreover, doing so will ensure that someday our citizens, when imprisoned abroad, will be denied similar protections by a foreign government, as well. The treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners could also provide a wedge for our own government to erode the civil liberties of citizens, permanent resident aliens, or visaholders - claiming that the Constitution applies in fewer and fewer circumstances, and to fewer and fewer persons.

If we are silent about our own treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners now, we will have little to say about these future abuses when they inevitably occur. As Thomas Paine wrote, "He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

The Administration's Claim: The Constitution Does Not Apply in Guantanamo

The plaintiffs in the California case are a group of clergypersons and lawyers - including a former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark. They challenge the constitutionality of the confinement of the Guantanamo detainees. Specifically, they claim that the detainees have been denied due process, the right to be informed of the charges against them, and the right to legal counsel.

The Bush Administration could have chosen to defend the case by arguing that the confinement is constitutional. The Constitution requires different amounts of process depending upon the circumstances, and various cases have held that a system of military justice can be appropriate under the laws of war. Here, the Administration could have argued that the detainees are being processed in accordance with the law applicable to enemy combatants; that the right to counsel was inapplicable at this time given the circumstances of the war against terrorism; and that a general regard for the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of captives in war satisfies American constitutional standards.

But the Bush Administration chose to make none of these arguments. Rather than arguing the merits of the claims, the Administration simply denied the right of the detainees to any constitutional protection whatsoever. It argued that the Constitution provides no protections at all to aliens in Guantanamo Bay, since, according to the Administration, they are not in the United States, but rather in Cuba.

The District Court's Decision: The Administration Is Right

In a 1950 decision, Johnson v. Eisentrager, the Supreme Court had declared that enemy aliens captured and imprisoned abroad could claim no rights under the Constitution. Relying on that decision, the district court dismissed the case.

Guantanamo as Law-Free Zone? U.S. Power Without "Sovereignty"

The Administration's argument, and the court's decision, might be reasonable if the detainees were held in a place other than Guantanamo. There is a strong argument to be made that, in general, the Constitution does not protect enemy aliens who are located in a foreign country. (There is also a strong, contrary argument, however, that the U.S. should always be obliged to follow the Constitution, wherever it acts around the world. Or, put another way, the Constitution should follow the flag.)

But Guantanamo is not the typical foreign land. It is more akin to a territory controlled by the United States.

The history of our control over this tip of the island dates back to the Spanish-American War of 1898, which sought to liberate Cuba from Spanish oppression. The war concluded with America acquiring significant parts of the Spanish colonial empire for itself - including Guam, the Philippines, and Guantanamo Bay.

Under the terms of a 1903 lease and a 1934 treaty, the United States was granted the power to "exercise complete jurisdiction and control" over Guantanamo Bay, while Cuba would retain "ultimate sovereignty." For the last century, the United States has exercised such control, despite the protestations of the Cuban government for the past few decades that the U.S. presence is illegitimate.

In Coalition of Clergy v. Bush, the court relied on the fact that the lease declared that "sovereignty" over Guantanamo remained with Cuba. With Cuba "sovereign" over Guantanamo, it made little sense, the court believed, to apply the U.S. Constitution to this land.

But this is a very superficial argument. The international order relies upon states exercising their powers to maintain order and certain minimal legal rights within their sovereign territories. Sovereignty without power is an empty concept.

Cuba has no method by which it might maintain order within Guantanamo, even were it inclined to do so. Guantanamo Bay is defended by the American Navy; no Cuban policeman would dare venture into this territory. While formal sovereignty may remain with Cuba, it is in name only. The practical aspects of sovereignty clearly reside with the U.S.

The U.S. government argues that American law, and even the Constitution, does not bind it on Guantanamo, at least with respect to how we treat aliens. Yet it would never respect Cuban law either - consider how likely the U.S. government would be to follow a decision by Castro that the prisoners should be treated differently henceforth.

Finding the Right World War II Precedent: Not Eisentrager, But Yamashita

This analysis shows why the Supreme Court's holding in Johnson v. Eisentrager does not even remotely apply to Guantanamo. There, the Germans who challenged their confinement had been tried before a U.S. military tribunal in China with the explicit consent of the Chinese Government, which exercised genuine power over the land at issue.

In contrast, the Guantanamo detainees are being held without any regard for the wishes of the country that the U.S. says is "sovereign." Our lack of relations with Cuba serves our purposes well--we have ignored their objections regarding our actions in Guantanamo for many decades now.

The relevant precedent is not Eisentrager, but another World War II decision - the 1946 case of Application of Yamashita. There, the Supreme Court considered the petition of a Japanese general who had been tried by a U.S. military tribunal in the Philippines--like Guantanamo, a territory we gained as a result of the Spanish-American War.

The Court did not deny that the general had any rights under the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it considered his claim on the merits. By doing so, it implicitly established what the Government today is unwilling to concede--that an enemy alien in a foreign territory under the control of the United States is still within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution.

The general lost on the merits, and so might the Guantanamo detainees. But my point is not that the detainees should win their constitutional case. It is that they should have a right to make it. Instead, the Bush Administration has tried to avoid the constitution by claiming that Guantanamo is, in effect, a foreign country, even though it is entirely within our power.

U.S.-controlled Guantanamo is closer to the U.S.-controlled Philippines than it is to China. We should be disappointed that the Administration argued, and the court held, to the contrary, applying Eisentrager and not Yamashita.

Believing in the Rule of Law As A Requirement, Not A Matter of Grace

As first year law students learn in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison, if there is no way to challenge an executive or legislative action in court, the executive and legislative branch is not truly bound by the rule of law. The Administration has made the decision to provide some of the detainees with some process - as a matter of grace, at its own whim, and without guarantees of fairness or equality. But that is no substitute for the detainees' ability to argue - successfully or not - that all of them deserve whatever process the Constitution says is due.

A Bad Precedent for Our Citizens Abroad

For over a century, we have had complete control over Guantanamo Bay. We should not now argue that - despite this longstanding and thoroughgoing control - we still do not have sovereignty, because Guantanamo is technically Cuban soil. The argument makes a mockery of our legal system and invites other countries to treat our own citizens unfairly in the future by employing similar means.

We should not forget that it was the Bush Administration who chose to bring the detainees to Guantanamo in the first place - perhaps because it could make this very argument. Indeed, one "advantage" of our maintaining a base in Guantanamo is to avoid being required to respect the Constitution there.

What if another country were to arrest U.S. citizens, take them to a location over which that country had control, but no technical sovereignty, and then argue that the country's own law did not apply in that territory - so that our citizens would not have a right to counsel, or even to know what the charges against them might be?

We would be distressed. We should be distressed, too, about our own country's similarly taking the position that Guantanamo detainees do not even have the most basic rights under our Constitution.

To be sure, if the Constitution were held to apply in Guantanamo - as it should be - a federal court might well conclude that the government's treatment of the detainees accords with the Constitution. But we should not seek to do an end run around the Constitution by claiming that it does not even apply.

We should show greater faith in the Constitution's wisdom than that. Let us hope that the federal courts considering this issue, on appeal or in the first instance, hold that the U.S. Constitution follows U.S. power to Guantanamo Bay.

Anupam Chander is an Acting Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. A graduate of Yale Law School, he specializes in cyberlaw and international law.

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