The United States cannot seriously claim to be a beacon of freedom and justice if it codifies a system that allows the government to prosecute people using evidence that the accused cannot see. But that's one of the powers President Bush is seeking in the 89-page anti-terrorism bill he is sending to Congress.
There is no question that protecting America and Americans is a serious and complicated business in this age of international terrorism. The government needs certain tools to do the job, but the tools President Bush wants Congress to give him are not the tools with which democracies are built.
In seeking legislation to authorize military commissions for the trial of terrorism suspects, President Bush is using the same tactic that he used in pushing the Patriot Act through Congress. Submit a thick, complicated piece of legislation, and then demand that Congress pass it immediately.
Even more worrisome, there are hints that the president and his supporters and political operatives will use the same election tactic this time as they did during and following the Patriot Act debate. They will accuse anyone who doesn't give the president unqualified support of being unpatriotic.
Perhaps the most notorious case of how the Patriot Act was used for political gain was in the 2002 Senate race in Georgia, when a challenger who avoided service during the Vietnam War accused the incumbent, Max Cleland, a man who lost both of his legs and one of his arms in Vietnam, of being unpatriotic for questioning parts of the Patriot Act.
This past week, President Bush unveiled his plans for legislation that would authorize military tribunals for terror suspects, including those held at Guantanamo Bay, and for increased latitude in conducting warrantless electronic surveillance.
"Time is of the essence. Congress is in session just a few more weeks, and passing this legislation ought to be a top priority," Bush said.
If time is short, it is as much the administration's fault as anyone's. The Supreme Court ruled against the administration's plan for military trials in late June, but that ruling came as no surprise. Lower courts had repeatedly ruled that Bush was overstepping his authority as president in waging a war against terror.
And even now, the military commissions proposed by the president do not meet the objections of the courts. The president's commissions -- instead of tracking closely with the existing military code of justice, as the law and treaties seem to require -- would allow defendants to be prosecuted with evidence they are barred from seeing, allow them to be excluded from their own trials and allow the use of hearsay evidence and evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques.
The administration would have Congress override the Supreme Court ruling by declaring that its military commissions are, in fact, constitutional and in accord with international law. The president's bill would also limit Geneva Convention prohibitions on "humiliating and degrading" treatment of prisoners.
The president's proposal is on a collision course with a military-commission bill sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain, John Warner and Lindsey Graham that takes into account the high court's objections.
There is reason to question whether the president truly wants Congress to give him the authority to bring terrorists to justice, or whether he wants a congressional debate that will help energize his political base and improve his party's position in the November elections.
"America is a nation of law," President Bush said Wednesday when he announced that 14 accused terrorists held in secret CIA prisons abroad had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
But declaring that this is a nation of law with one breath does not make it so when the president demands with the next breath that Congress expedite a bill that is contrary to U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of what's legal and that contradicts the clear language of the Geneva Conventions.