Bush's power vs. rights of detained citizens
Hamdi and Padilla cases test presidential reach in wartime.
George W. Bush isn't the first president to assert an expansive view of his powers as commander in chief to safeguard the nation during dangerous times.Skip to next paragraph
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Harry Truman tried unsuccessfully to take over steel mills amid labor strife that threatened weapons production during the Korean conflict. Franklin Roosevelt authorized the detention of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. And Abraham Lincoln detained more than 13,500 individuals without access to judges or lawyers during the Civil War.
Such actions were justified as necessary to protect the nation. Critics viewed them as evidence of the kind of imperial presidency the Founding Fathers sought to prevent.
Those same arguments are being offered today at the US Supreme Court where the justices are set to take up two potential landmark cases. Specifically at issue is whether President Bush exceeded his authority by ordering the indefinite military detention of two US citizens, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. Both men are being held in a military prison in South Carolina because of their alleged involvement as enemy combatants in the war on terror.
Unlike the 595 foreign nationals being held at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, naval base, Messrs. Hamdi and Padilla are American citizens who are being held on American soil. Yet they are being held without the constitutional protections normally afforded citizens seized by the government.
The Bush administration and its supporters say that if a military commander has the authority under the laws of war to order that the enemy be shot and killed, then "enemy combatants" may also be detained for the duration of the conflict.
The administration further maintains that in the war on terror, the "battlefield" can be anywhere - including US soil. "The long-settled authority of the commander in chief to seize and detain enemy combatants is not limited to aliens or foreign battlefields," says US Solicitor General Theodore Olson in his brief to the court in the Padilla case.
Opponents say the Bush administration is writing the system of checks and balances out of the Constitution by placing the president's military powers above the civil authority of all three branches of the US government.
"Executive power to detain an individual is the hallmark of the totalitarian state," says Hamdi's lawyer, Frank Dunham, in his brief to the court.
One lesson from history likely to play a prominent role in the Hamdi and Padilla cases is that presidents act at the zenith of their power when their actions are authorized by Congress.
Truman lost the steel seizure case because he acted unilaterally without congressional approval. Roosevelt had the power to detain Japanese-Americans, but the military lacked any authority to enforce his executive order until Congress provided it. And Lincoln went to Congress and persuaded it to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, allowing him to indefinitely detain civilians.