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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Alberto Gonzales
Attorney General

October 18, 2006

Alberto Gonzales
Yesterday, the President signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This landmark piece of legislation accomplishes two goals that are vital to our national security. First, it allows the Central Intelligence Agency to continue its program for questioning key terrorist leaders and operatives, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The intelligence community has confirmed that this program has been an indispensable tool in our efforts to thwart terrorist attacks over the last five years, and the Military Commission Act ensures that the CIA program will continue in the future.

Second, it provides a legal framework for prosecuting terrorists who we capture on the fields of battle. The Military Commissions Act guarantees that every terrorist will receive a full and fair trial, consistent with America’s obligations under international and domestic law. At the same time, this new law protects the sources and methods used to collect our most sensitive national intelligence. These procedures—which resulted from extensive deliberations among policymakers in both the Executive and Legislative branches—protect the rights of accused terrorists and the safety of the American people.

I look forward to answering your questions.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Attorney Gonzales: When you look at WW1,WW2, Korean War and the Vietnam war. This War On Terror seems to cause us to re-think many of our military and other practices and procedures. Do you think this kind of war has caused us to put a new face on many of your strategies Thank You

Alberto Gonzales
Yes. Our previous wars involved conflicts between the United States and other nations. In those conflicts, we fought our enemies on the battlefields, and those enemies generally abided by the law of war, wearing uniforms and targeting combatants, not civilians. Even in the Vietnam War, where we faced guerrilla enemies, as well as organized forces, we could draw on the doctrines that the law of war had developed to deal with civil conflicts. But September 11, 2001 challenged that paradigm: Our new enemies scoff at the rule of law in general and the law of war in particular. They are a dispersed terrorist enemy who take refuge in failed states, or in covert locations, as they make plans to murder as many innocent people as possible. Combating this new enemy has forced us rethink not only our approach to fighting the war, but also the legal tools that the United States must have available in that conflict. The Military Commissions Act is an integral part of our new strategy.

Spencer, from Washingtonville, New York writes:
"The Military Commissions Act Will Allow The CIA To Continue Its Program For Questioning Terrorists..." Would you please describe the methods in which they will continue questioning.

Alberto Gonzales
As the President has made clear, we cannot discuss the specific methods that our intelligence agents use to question captured terrorists because doing so would help the terrorists train against our techniques. What I can say is that the CIA interrogation program has been extremely successful, and it has directly helped us to capture many senior al Qaeda terrorists and to disrupt future terrorist plots. In addition, I want to assure you that while our interrogation methods may be tough, they are carefully reviewed to ensure that they are safe and that they are lawful. The United States does not engage in torture, which is flatly prohibited under United States law and international law, and we do not engage in cruel and inhumane treatment falling short of torture, as prohibited by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. We impose these restrictions on ourselves not out of any expectation that our enemy would show similar restraint—indeed, our enemies torture and behead their captives, and their goal is the murder of innocents. We do this, however, to reaffirm our respect for our values and the standards of civilized nations.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
What will this bill do? I am for our military defending us by getting terrorists before they get here

Alberto Gonzales
The Military Commissions Act ensures that those who defend us have the tools they need to keep America safe. I agree with you that we are safest when we are able to capture the terrorists and disrupt terrorist plots before they get into our country. The new law allows our military and intelligence personnel to detain and remove terrorists from the battlefields of this conflict, and to collect from them the vital intelligence that will enable us to capture their associates and break up future terrorist plots. Once we capture them, the new law provides for effective and fair procedures that will allow us to bring those terrorists to justice for their crimes against United States citizens.

Charlie, from Tucson, Arizona writes:
The United States has defended itself successfully for 230 years without resorting to "alternative means" of interrogation, which is the term President Bush used to describe what this law does. Why is this law necessary now, versus the many other wars we have successfully fought without it?

Alberto Gonzales
The War on Terror is a new kind of war, which we are fighting against a new kind of enemy. Our enemies here do not fight on behalf of a nation state, they do not seek to meet us on the battlefield, and they recognize no principles of international law. Rather, our enemies seek to avoid direct confrontation with our military, hiding in the shadows, until they can strike out at civilians around the world. Our best intelligence against the enemy in this conflict often comes from the terrorists themselves.

As the President noted yesterday when he signed the Military Commissions Act, the CIA’s interrogation program has been directly responsible for saving American lives: This program helped us gain vital intelligence from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al Shibh, and Abu Zubaydah—three of the men believed to have helped plan and facilitate the 9/11 attacks. The CIA program helped us break up a cell of 17 Southeast Asian terrorist operatives being groomed for attacks inside the United States; the program helped us uncover key operatives in al Qaeda’s biological weapons program; and it helped us identify terrorists who were sent to case targets inside the United States—including financial buildings in major cities on the East Coast.

The CIA program may employ tough interrogation tactics, but they are safe; they are humane; and they are lawful. The Military Commissions Act allows that program to continue, and by doing so, it helps prevent atrocities like September 11th from happening again.

Brad, from San Jose writes:
Mr Gonzales, I am concerned about the potential for abuse of the new rules. What legal recourse does an innocent suspect have under the new legislation? Specifically, I am deeply concerned about what would happen if someone less honorable than the current administration occupied the White House and chose to use the new laws for unlawful purposes, such as punishing political opponents. Without the right to legal council, habeas corpus, or trial under US criminal law, how would a falsely accused "suspect" defend themselves and gain their freedom? (This would apply equally to US and non-US citizens.) Also, in consideration of the fact that such a person might be indefinitely detained for weeks, months or even years, and subject to "aggressive" forms of questioning, what recourse, if any, would such a person have to obtain compensation for the injuries they sustained as a result of the malicious prosecution?

Alberto Gonzales
I want to make one thing clear: The Military Commissions Act does not apply to American citizens. The military commissions established under the Act may try only alien unlawful enemy combatants, and the new law does not restrict the rights of United States citizens to file writs of habeas corpus in federal court.

Of course, we also must be concerned about the rights of foreign citizens. The United States has no wish to detain anyone who is not a terrorist or an enemy combatant, and both the Military Commissions Act, and our existing laws, provide those individuals with the opportunity to demonstrate their innocence before military tribunals and independent federal courts.

The Military Commissions Act does prevent individuals detained as alien enemy combatants from challenging their detention by habeas corpus. But enemy combatants captured outside the United States have never had the right to challenge detention in their civilian courts. Even so, we have taken the virtually unprecedented step of providing individuals with that chance. Every detainee who is detained at Guantanamo Bay has had, or will have, a hearing before a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which is a fair military tribunal designed to determine whether an individual is properly detained as an enemy combatant. If the tribunal determines that he may be detained, then the individual may appeal that decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In other words, the members of al Qaeda and the Taliban who are now detained may challenge their detention in a federal court, which is precisely what the right of habeas corpus is.

We provide even greater rights to individuals who go to trial before our military commissions. That trial would be presided over by an independent military judge. The accused will have the right to counsel; he will be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; he may see and respond to all the evidence introduced; and he may introduce evidence and witnesses on own his behalf. If convicted, he may appeal the commission's decision to a military appeals court, the Court of Military Commission Review, and to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

This extensive array of procedures and protections are designed to ensure, and will ensure, that we do not detain or prosecute by military commission anyone other than captured terrorists and other alien enemy combatants.

William, from Little Rock writes:
Since this bill will exclude from the public process any information which can be deemed sensitive to national security or endangers the physical well-being of the accused, and since the case can be made very easily that one or both of these conditions present for each case of a person so accused, then none of the proceedings of these commissions will ever be public, true?

Alberto Gonzales
Not at all. Congress made clear in the Military Commissions Act that almost all of the proceedings will be open to the public. To close the proceeding, the military judge would have to make specific finding that closure is necessary to protect classified information or the physical safety of a witness. Those circumstances will clearly be the exception, not the rule. We believe it is important that the public have the chance to see both the fairness of the commission proceedings, and the evidence against the terrorists in our custody. Accordingly, while the decision whether to close the trial proceeding will be for the military judge in a particular case, I would expect that the military commission proceedings generally will be open to the public.

Jeff, from Ely, Nevada writes:
Attorney General Gonzalez it is an honor to speak to you, I look up to you a lot. Can you elaborate on what resources the Military Commissions Act gives the military in terms of what they need to save lives and protect America?

Alberto Gonzales
Perhaps the most important thing this new law gives our military is clarity. Back in 2002, the President determined that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, a provision that had previously been applied in civil wars, did not apply to the War on Terror. In June 2006, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which disagreed with that interpretation. Common Article 3 is notoriously vague, however, and there was considerable uncertainty over what it meant to commit an “outrage upon personal dignity” or “humiliating and degrading treatment.” To make matters worse, the War Crimes Act made any violation of Common Article 3 a serious crime. The new law, however, provides clear guidance as to what specific conduct under Common Article 3 constitutes a war crime, and it allows the President to define these ambiguous terms so as to provide United States personnel with clear guidelines for their conduct.

Hank, from Spokane, WA writes:
If this law is enacted then a person designated as unlawful enemy combatant does not have the right to challenge their imprisonment nor do they have the right to a speedy trial. They can be held indefinitely even if they were an American citizen. If you, Mr Gonzales, were arrested and classified as an unlawful enemy combatant and you were an innocent person, what course of action would you take?

Alberto Gonzales
Again, I want to emphasize that the Military Commissions Act does not apply to American citizens. Thus, if I or any other American citizen were detained, we would have access to the full panoply of rights that we enjoyed before the law.

It also bears emphasis, however, that the law of war allows a country like the United States to remove captured enemies from the battlefield and detain them for the duration of the hostilities. These enemies are not detained as punishment. They are detained to prevent them from continuing to attack United States military and United States citizens. We carefully review those individuals who are in our custody. If we believe them a threat, then we detain them, but when we believe that they no longer pose a threat, or that we may release them to their home countries, then we release them.

In 2004, in the Hamdi case, the Supreme Court recognized that the War on Terror is an armed conflict and the United States enjoys the authority to detain enemy combatants – even those that are American Citizens. And we are safer because of it. Indeed, some of the terrorists released from American custody have returned to the field of battle and renewed their attempts to murder our citizens.

Finally, as I’ve explained in some of my previous answers, every terrorist detained by the United States enjoys a wide array of opportunities to challenge his imprisonment. Those individuals have the chance to argue that their capture was a mistake before both military tribunals and federal courts.

Mike, from Chicago writes:
Why is it necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus as part of the Military Tribunal Act? I take writ of habeas corpus to mean a legal proceeding in which an individual held in custody can challenge the propriety of that custody under the law. Isn't this writ intended to allow prisoners to challenge a potential mistake in their detainment? When you look back, years from now, will you be proud of this? You better well be. -Mike

Alberto Gonzales
I am very proud of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and every American should share that pride. The new law is fully consistent with our values as a nation, and it will be vital to protecting our security as well. To explain why, allow me first to clear up some widely held misconceptions.

First, the new law should not be understood to "suspend" the writ of habeas corpus for enemy combatants. Habeas corpus is a civilian remedy, and enemy combatants captured outside the United States have never had the right to file a habeas claim under the United States Constitution in prior armed conflicts. Thus, the new law's restrictions on habeas corpus do not, and cannot, deprive enemy combatants of any constitutional right that they have ever had under United States law.

As I noted in the answer to a previous question, the United States already provides enemy combatants with the chance to challenge the legality of their detention before a civilian court, by appealing the determinations of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. This process-which goes well beyond what is required for lawful prisoners of war under both international and domestic law-provides the same opportunity to get into federal court that these individuals would claim through the traditional writ of habeas corpus.

Thus, every American should be proud of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Future generations will look back and commend us for recognizing the threat of terrorism and taking every possible step-consistent with American values and the rule of law-to defeat it.

Alberto Gonzales
I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to answer your questions, and I hope that I’ve helped provide a better understanding of the meaning and import of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Thank you for your interest in this important topic.

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