Last week, A three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled unanimously that President Bush has the authority to indefinitely detain an American citizen as an enemy combatant.
The panel threw out a ruling by a trial judge in South Carolina that Mr. Bush had overstepped his bounds by detaining Jose Padilla, a Chicago native, for three years.
In an opinion written by Judge J. Michael Luttig, who has been considered by President Bush for a nomination to the Supreme Court, the panel said Mr. Bush had the right to detain Mr. Padilla as an enemy combatant under the powers granted the president by Congress after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.
Consider the implications for ordinary U.S. citizens. If the president says youre an enemy combatant, you can be held indefinitely which is when the war on terror will end. You will have no evidentiary hearing to determine probable cause for holding you. You will have no right to habeas corpus, a legal tradition going back hundreds of years. You will have no access to any court to defend yourself. You will not be permitted to confront your accusers. You will not be given access to the governments evidence.
These are all sacred constitutional principles and unless the Supreme Court overturns this decision, they might as well not exist.
Originally, the government claimed that Padilla intended to set off a "dirty bomb" that would spew radiation in some American city. But now the government has all but eliminated that accusation, saying he may have been planning to use gas lines to destroy apartment buildings. But it has presented no evidence of that in any court.
Government lawyers now argue that the main new reason he should be detained as an enemy combatant was that he fought American forces in Afghanistan alongside Qaeda colleagues. But that charge is also unproven by any evidence.
In an earlier case involving an American citizen, Yaser Esam Hamdi, the Supreme Court ruled that an American citizen could be detained by President Bush as an enemy combatant because he was purportedly captured while fighting in Afghanistan. But, even under that circumstance, the court added to the ambiguity by ruling that Hamdi was entitled under the Constitution to contest the allegations made against him by "a neutral decision maker."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the controlling opinion, said it might be a military tribunal with rules of evidence more favorable to the prosecution than in civil courts. Mr. Hamdi was sent back to his home country, Saudi Arabia, before that issue was resolved.
But Jose Padilla was not arrested on a battlefield in Afghanistan. He was arrested at O'Hare International Airport. He has not been charged with any criminal offense as of this date.
If his client is consigned to the sham of military tribunals, he will lose most of rights American citizens are entitled to.
Mr. Padillas lawyer has said the only fair hearing for Mr. Padilla would be a trial in an American civilian court. But that is likely to produce an invocation of the state secrets privilege, which the government has increasingly been used to avoid trials that might prove embarrassing.