U.S. grilled over terror policies
From Justice Producer Terry Frieden
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal judge in Washington has directly challenged U.S. government lawyers to explain their policies for designating enemy combatants and for the continued detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a much-anticipated hearing, U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Greene received few answers as she repeatedly pressed the Justice Department attorneys during a four-hour session on whether to dismiss a lawsuit on behalf of several detainees.
"How long will they be held? As long as Islamic fundamentalists are a threat?" the judge asked.
"I wish I could give you an answer," said Justice lawyer Brian Boyle.
"What can the people who are being held be told is the longest they are subject to detention?" the judge wanted to know.
"I'm not sure what can be told to them," Boyle responded.
He insisted the detained non-citizens who have been determined to be enemy combatants have no constitutional rights. "Their only connection to this country is to a desire to attack it," he said.
Greene, noting "America and the world are watching," indicated she would not rule immediately.
"I will not rush to judgment," she told the packed courtroom.
In a surprise move, Greene greeted the government attorneys with a series of penetrating hypothetical questions to test the limits of the administration policy on designating enemy combatants.
"If a little old lady in Switzerland gave money to a charity for an Afghan orphanage, and the money was passed to al Qaeda, could she be held as an enemy combatant?" the judge asked.
Boyle indicated that might fit within the definition of enemy combatant and stressed the need to give the executive branch of government wide latitude during a time of war.
"Could a man in London who believes his cousin is a member of al Qaeda be an enemy combatant for failing to report his suspicions to authorities?" she asked.
The government attorney said he doubted officials would hold someone under that circumstance but did not say they could not do so.
The judge also pressed on where the battlefield ends in the global war on terrorism.
Boyle summed up the government's great challenge to deal with unprecedented and complex issues. "It is like nothing we have seen before," he concluded.
Wednesday's hearing is part of a legal effort to clarify the government's handling of enemy combatants following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June.
The high court ruled people held at Guantanamo Bay had a right to challenge their detention in federal court. The decision significantly dampened a key pillar of the government's aggressive anti-terror policies.
About 60 of the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay have asked for a federal court hearing on their status. There are currently about 550 prisoners at the camp.
After the hearing lawyers for the detainees blasted the government's position, and called some of the responses "shocking."
"The little old lady in Switzerland who by mistake had given a contribution to someone she didn't know to an orphanage in Afghanistan, could be picked up by the United States as an enemy combatant. That's really a shocking thing," said plaintiffs' lawyer Thomas Wilner.
"After this statement today I would think that people in the world should be terribly afraid that the United States in asserting its power could pick up little old ladies, little old men, or anyone who makes a mistake, and hold them, and that's a very scary thing," he said.
Government attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.