February 25, 2007
Dodd is Right on the Detainee Issue
By Ruben Navarrette
SAN DIEGO — I reached Democratic presidential hopeful Chris Dodd last week as the Connecticut senator was doing some old-fashioned retail politicking in a bar in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — an establishment appropriately dubbed “The Irish Democrat.”
Boy, did this Irish Democrat have his dander up. And well he should, since the topic of discussion called for moral indignation: our policy for handling detainees in the war on terror.
We spoke by phone a few hours after a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia handed down a ruling that bolstered the Bush administration’s position on the issue. By a vote of 2-1, the panel ruled that the 2006 Military Commissions Act prevented detainees from challenging in court the president’s decision to hold them indefinitely and without charges.
The MCA, which Congress approved last fall, specifically bars detainees at Guantanamo Bay from contesting their confinement in U.S. courts. In urging passage of the law, President Bush appealed to what was then a Republican-controlled Congress to get around a 2004 decision by the Supreme Court. The justices had ruled that detainees — including those at Guantanamo — have the right to challenge their imprisonment in court. Now the D.C. appellate court has sided with the administration and Congress and set the stage for a possible showdown with the Supreme Court.
This is an issue that strikes close to the bone for Dodd. Along with fellow Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy, Russ Feingold and Bob Menendez, he has introduced legislation that would eliminate parts of the MCA, define clearly what an enemy combatant is, and restore habeas corpus rights to all detainees in U.S. custody. In other words, what Dodd has in mind would bring some decency and common sense to a policy that has been lacking both for much too long.
For the senator, the fact that the judiciary is sending mixed signals on the detainee issue is a clear indication that it’s time for Democrats in Congress to get in the game.
“When you get divided opinions like that,” Dodd told me, “Congress, it seems to me, has an obligation to speak.”
The senator thought the issue was resolved when the Supreme Court set down its marker that — in the words of former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — the war on terror isn’t a “blank check” that gives the president unlimited power.
No such luck. “Obviously we have more work to do,” he said.
For Dodd, some of that work — and perhaps the most daunting part of the task — will be in convincing a significant number of fellow Democrats to join him, which means overcoming their fear of being labeled soft on terrorism.
He acknowledged: “I’ll have to worry about some folks in my own party who just don’t know enough about it. I’m afraid some of them don’t understand what habeas corpus is, and don’t recognize how important the Geneva Conventions have been.”
Having served in the Senate for more than 25 years, Dodd understands enough about politics to understand the challenge before him.
“They’ve decided that they’d rather be considered strong on terrorism, even it means they’re weak on the Constitution,” he said of fellow Democrats. “The irony is, of course, that in being weak on the Constitution, you’re being weak on terrorism too.”
I asked Dodd how he thought his championing of this issue would impact his presidential bid, suggesting that this is probably not an issue that wins you votes but may cost you a few.
The candidate insists that his concern for human rights was instilled in him at an early age by his father, who once served as executive trial counsel at the Nuremberg hearings following World War II.
“Growing up, I had a diet of this stuff, of the rule of law endlessly and this human rights stuff,” he said. “The rule of law means a lot to me, and (so does) the Constitution. I mean, if you can’t defend the Constitution, you have no business running for the presidency in my view.”
Call me pleasantly surprised. I’m not in the habit of praising Democrats on matters of national security. But, when it comes to the detainee issue, Chris Dodd is on the right track. And every single Democrat in both houses of Congress should join him there.
The goal of this blog is to collect 315 copies of Orwell’s 1984 and send them to every member of Congress who voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (a k a The Torture Bill or The Detaineee Bill), which suspends the centuries-old writ of Habeas Corpus for anyone deemed an “enemy combatant” by George W. Bush, meaning his administration can detain you indefinitely without access to a court and torture you if they like.
We can be reached at unpersonsATgmailDOTcom
Big Brother is watching you.