Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Military Commissions Act of 2009: New AND Improved?

Congress passed several amendments to the Military Commissions Act last Thursday, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. President Barack Obama signed the legislation yesterday.

An earlier version of this post stated that "There is much of importance — some good, some less good — in this legislation." That post went on to focus on the war crimes provisions of the MCA in light of our prior posts on this topic (see, e.g., here and here) (Others have discussed some of the procedural aspects governing the use of coerced confessions and the applicability of Miranda warnings or the collateral review aspects). Unfortunately, the earlier post was based on a prior version of the legislation that did not ultimately get passed. As a result, there is less good in the new legislation as I detail below.

►First (good), the legislation comes closer to standard international humanitarian law lexicon in addressing itself to “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents” rather than “alien unlawful combatants.” Thus, the basic concept statutory provision has been changed from:

§ 948b. Military commissions generally

(a) Purpose. This chapter establishes procedures governing the use of military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants engaged in hostilities against the United States for violations of the law of war and other offenses triable by military commission.

to:

(a) Purpose. This chapter establishes procedures governing the use of military commissions to try alien unprivileged enemy belligerents for violations of the law of war and other offenses triable by military commission.

An “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent” is defined at Sec. 948a(7) as:

an individual (other than a privileged belligerent) who—
(A) has engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners;

(B) has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners; or

(C) is a member of al Qaeda.

This definition adds to our genealogy of efforts to define who may be detained and prosecuted in the post-9/11 era.

►Second (good), Congress has deleted reference to the status of military commissions as “regularly constituted courts” affording the necessary “judicial guarantees” for the purpose of common Article 3. The original legislation — passed in the wake of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), which classified the armed conflict with Al Qaeda and the deposed Taliban as a Common-Article-3 non-international armed conflict, at a minimum — boldly asserted that the military commissions satisfied common Article 3, as if the courts would simply accept such a claim:

(f) Status of commissions under common Article 3. A military commission established under this chapter is a regularly constituted court, affording all the necessary "judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples" for purposes of common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

In deleting this language, Congress acknowledged that it is the courts that will decide whether such commissions meet U.S. constitutional and international law obligations and that simply saying something is so does not make it so.

► Third (bad), the legislation still asserts that it does not create any new crimes. The 2006 MCA stated that all of its enumerated crimes pre-existed its enactment and thus could be invoked in a criminal prosecution arising out of pre-2006 events, such as the attacks of 9/11 or even the U.S.S. Cole and Khobar Towers attacks. The original language stated:

§ 950p. Statement of substantive offenses

(a) PURPOSE.—The provisions of this subchapter codify offenses that have traditionally been triable by military commissions. This chapter does not establish new crimes that did not exist before its enactment, but rather codifies those crimes for trial by military commission.

(b) EFFECT.—Because the provisions of this subchapter (including provisions that incorporate definitions in other provisions of law) are declarative of existing law, they do not preclude trial for crimes that occurred before the date of the enactment of this chapter.

A draft version of the legislation that did not get passed had more appropriately hedged this a bit when it stated:

§ 950p. Definitions; construction of certain offenses; common circumstances

(d) Offenses Encompassed Under Law of War—To the extent that the provisions of this subchapter codify offenses that have traditionally been triable under the law of war or otherwise triable by military commission, this subchapter does not preclude trial for offenses that occurred before the date of the enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.

This language, which acknowledges that just because Congress says something was already penalized by the law of war does not make it so, unfortunately did not make it into the final legislation. New Section 950p(d) has the same effect as the language in the 2006 MCA.

► Fourth (good), the status of the Geneva Conventions as a source of law has been elevated considerably. Originally, the legislation purported to prevent the treaties' invocation in any setting and for any purpose. This language stated:

(g) Geneva Conventions not establishing source of rights. No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.

The 2009 legislation states at Sec. 948b:

(e) Geneva Conventions Not Establishing Private Right of Action—No alien unprivileged enemy belligerent subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a basis for a private right of action.

Thus, while the original provision purported to bar any invocation of the Geneva Conventions, the new language accepts that the Conventions may be applicable offensively in habeas proceedings or defensively in penal proceedings by providing only that they may not give rise to an independent cause of action.

►Fifth (bad), conspiracy (the charge of choice before military commissions) is still listed as a substantive crime. In the rejected draft version of the legislation, conspiracy appeared only as a form of responsibility applicable to all the enumerated offenses along with attempt, solicitation, superior responsibility, accessoryship, etc. This change was not adopted, and so the new MCA still allows for the prosecution of an inchoate crime of conspiracy, notwithstanding that a plurality of the Supreme Court in Hamdan determined that no such crime exists under the law of war. Had the draft language been adopted, conspiracies would have been prosecutable only as a form of responsibility when some substantive war crime that was the object of the conspiracy was committed.

► Sixth (good), the legislation includes at §950p(c) a more explicit war nexus, thus limiting the ability of the government to use military commissions to prosecute crimes that occurred prior to the initiation of an armed conflict involving the U.S. The starting date for any conflict involving the U.S. has never been definitively established, but any such armed conflict likely commenced on September 11th at the earliest and October 7, 2001 (when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan) at the latest. (Although Justice Thomas in Hamdan and others have argued that any armed conflict was initiated earlier, either when Al Qaida "declared war" on the U.S. (Justice Thomas's theory) or attacked our embassies in Kenya & Tanzania). The new war nexus states:

(c) Common Circumstances—An offense specified in this subchapter is triable by military commission under this chapter only if the offense is committed in the context of and associated with armed conflict.

Incidentally, the formulation of the war nexus is identical to that in the ICC's Elements of Crimes.

► Seventh (good, I guess), the crime of spying has been slightly redefined to more clearly reference the law of war (added text in bold):

Any person subject to this chapter who, in violation of the law of war and with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign power, collects or attempts to collect information by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States, or one of the co-belligerents of the enemy, shall be punished by death or such other punishment as a military commission under this chapter may direct.

There is much to digest in this massive piece of legislation. The amendments described above are welcome, albeit too modest. Congress would have done better to cut more deeply into the list of purported war crimes to cull out all the novel offenses, including
  • inchoate conspiracy,
  • material support for terrorism
  • and murder of a privileged combatant
rather the leaving the task of determining their cognizability to the commissions (and the courts if they're allowed to get their hands on these cases). Had the crime of conspiracy actually been deleted as was obviously contemplated, many of the existing military commission cases would have had to be re-worked in light of the heavy reliance on that charge.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Are there any resources you can point to that enumerates this piece of legislation in summary, non legal terms?