A debate rages in the halls of universities as well as in Congress and national security agencies about whether the United States should enact new “administrative” or “preventive” detention laws – laws that would authorize the detention of suspected terrorists outside the normal criminal justice system.
Advocates argue that criminal law alone is inadequate to combat transnational terrorist networks spanning continents and waging violence at a level of intensity and sophistication previously achievable only by powerful states, but that the law of war is inadequate to protect liberty. Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal, for example, call on “Congress to establish a comprehensive system of preventive detention that is overseen by a national security court.”
Critics warn that new administrative detention laws will undermine liberty, and they assert that criminal law already provides the government with ample tools to arrest, charge, and prosecute suspected terrorists. Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner writes that preventive detention “cuts the heart out of any concept of human liberty.”
The system of detention and military trial authorized by President George W. Bush on November 13, 2001, and additional claimed authority to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely without process, have been litigated in several judicial circuits, moving from district courts to the Supreme Court and back down again. In 2006, these authorities returned to the Court for further exploration in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Regrettably, until very recently the separation of powers issues raised by the President’s initiatives received little attention from Congress, which, under the Constitution, has primary responsibility over military courts, tribunals “inferior to the supreme Court,” “Offenses against the Law of Nations,” the war power, and “Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” Because of congressional passivity, the principal checks on presidential power have been supplied instead by litigants and courts. The constitutional issues that emerge from this concentration of power in the presidency form the central theme of this article.
Discussions about torture often start with this hypothetical: Imagine that there is a terrorist in the middle of Manhattan who has planted a nuclear bomb set to go off within hours. You capture him and are faced with a moral dilemma. Do you torture him to get the information that will allow you to defuse the bomb, thereby saving the lives of millions of people? Or do you stand on principle and sacrifice multitudes?