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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Bush Defends Trying Terror Suspects in Secret Military Tribunals

November 20, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Monday defended his decision to allow the use of secret military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, calling it "the absolute right thing to do."

Bush's comments were the first he has made publicly about last Tuesday's order, which civil liberties groups have sharply criticized as violating international law and American standards of justice.

The president met with reporters during a photo session at the end of a Cabinet meeting that focused on the humanitarian needs of Afghanistan.

Using military tribunals would be "in the interests of the safety of potential jurors" who could be called for a civilian trial if alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden or any others in his Al Qaeda network are captured by American forces, Bush said. The order does not preclude the use of civilian courts.

Under the order, individuals whom Bush designates as terrorists would be placed under the control of the secretary of Defense, who would have "exclusive jurisdiction" over them. They would not be permitted to seek the aid of any U.S. court, any foreign court or any international tribunal.

"The option to use a military tribunal in a time of war makes a lot of sense," Bush said.

He said that "those who don't understand the decision" should consider the precedent set during World War II when a similar option was available to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The government used it to try eight Nazi saboteurs who were arrested in the United States; six were executed.

"Those were extraordinary times as well," Bush said.

"We're fighting a war . . . against the most evil kinds of people. I ought to be able to have that option available, should we ever bring one of these Al Qaeda members in alive."

At the same time, the president said, the government will "do everything we can to defend the American people, within the confines of our Constitution."

Bush's decision drew immediate fire from the American Civil Liberties Union. Its Washington director, Laura W. Murphy, said last week that the president should "justify why the current system does not allow for the timely prosecution of those accused of terrorist activities."

Without such justification, she added, the Bush order was "further evidence that the administration is totally unwilling to abide by the checks and balances that are so central to our democracy."

In his response Monday to a question about the challenges that have been raised, Bush said, "To the critics, I say: I made the absolute right decision."

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