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An Un-American Secrecy

The terrorist attacks against the United States, awful as they were, do not call for the Bush administration to dismiss constitutional protections for suspects in cases linked to Sept. 11.

At least 1,100 people remain in detention, apprehended in the FBI’s nationwide dragnet. The Justice Department has refused to disclose most of their names, where they are jailed or the nature of their possible involvement in the terrorist plot.

Federal agents have stonewalled even demands to explain why such extraordinary secrecy continues to be necessary--although they seem ready to conclude that none of the suspects in custody played a role in the suicide hijacking plot.

Last week, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced that federal agents would monitor communications between those jailed and their lawyers.

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On Tuesday, President Bush signed a broadly worded order allowing special military tribunals to try foreigners charged with terrorism, whether apprehended in this country or abroad. The order permits the trials to be held in secret without juries, with looser rules of evidence and with a lower burden of proof.

Bush and Ashcroft justify each of these alarming steps--detentions, eavesdropping and military tribunals--by invoking concerns about future terrorist attacks and the nation’s state of armed conflict. It is hard not to sympathize with any tactic that promises to stop killers. But war alone does not justify secret military trials. The true challenge for the United States is to proceed in a way that not only eliminates the threat but also demonstrates to the world that principles of fairness and due process still distinguish the nation from tyrannies like the Taliban.

Mass detentions, wiretaps and secret military trials will surely yield convictions. But these tactics do not ensure that federal agents will ferret out the real terrorists. The administration’s ends-justify-means moves will, however, undermine American constitutional values and the rule of law.

The perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh all were successfully tried and convicted in U.S. courts before the eyes of the world. Far from giving them a platform, their trials earned them scorn.

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When we prosecute people who have no respect for the law by giving them the full measure of this nation’s protections--instead of hauling them before secret, jerry-built tribunals--we say something important about our system of law.


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