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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

Respecting Habeas Corpus

July 30, 2008
Weekly Columns

A new piece of legislation is being considered by the Armed Services and Judiciary committees that would irresponsibly amend the federal judicial code to allow detained, enemy combatants to apply for writs of habeas corpus.  Habeas corpus is a Latin term that refers to the right every American citizen has for access to the court system to determine their guilt or innocence. This civil liberty has been in use for over 200 years as a protection for U.S. citizens to make sure they have their day in court.  This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided it would be a good idea to extend these same rights to enemy combatants in the war on terror.  In other words, give the terrorists who have been captured in Afghanistan and Iraq the same rights as American citizens in our courts.  With all due respect to the Speaker, that's just nuts.

During wartime, separate laws are in place to respect the basic human rights of all enemy combatants while also protecting the ability of our soldiers to defend the United States.  For example, such rules forbid the use of torture and the killing of enemy soldiers after they surrender.  It is important to remember that the war environment is radically different from everyday civil society.  Our soldiers have been trained and given the tools to manage their responsibilities during stressful and dangerous situations.  The current laws of war give soldiers the legal ability to manage enemy soldiers, civilians, and unlawful combatants in a way that minimizes threats to our enemies.  In fact, the Department of Defense already provides two tribunals, The Combatant Status Review Tribunal and an assessment by the Administrative Review Boards to make sure that illegal combatants are not held longer than necessary.  Changing the laws that are in use will only encourage the abuse of our judicial system and undermine the integrity of the laws of war.

Additionally, it is absurd to extend habeas corpus to probable enemies because it would impede the ability of members of the military to do the mission they have been assigned to do.  During wartime, soldiers are accountable for safeguarding innocents, protecting other soldiers, and carrying out their missions.  Acting on these orders is tricky enough without having to administer the full array of civil protections available to U.S. citizens.

Speaker Pelosi and her allies fail to understand the consequences of their proposed legislation, and that misunderstanding could endanger American lives both on and off the battlefield.  Their actions also demonstrate that they view terrorism as though it is an ongoing criminal activity.  They want to make our soldiers act as police officers and give the terrorists access to our courts.  Let me be clear - that is wrong and that is dangerous.  The fight against terrorism is a war and must be prosecuted appropriately and vigorously.  Giving terrorists free access to our judicial system makes a mockery of the War on Terror.  This legislation will not protect the interests of our military, it will not bolster support for established military law, and it will not make America safer.  As your Representative in Congress, rest assured that I will do all I can to make sure it never becomes law.