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Quick fixes can be dangerous
Jack Balshaw 12/12/01

I find the action by President Bush in creating secret military tribunals by Executive Order very disturbing. I'm not against military tribunals, but why do they have to be secret? If it's secret, we will never know what is being done to whom or why. A basic premise in our democracy is that the people should know what the government is doing and decide, at the ballot box, if they agree.

There are two parts of this "tribunal" question that each bother me. First, just exactly who and what does it cover?

The Executive Order covers "terrorists" without defining terrorist. It includes anyone not a U.S. citizen, and by extension, that means any non-U.S. citizen in the world. The presumption that only covers bin Laden and his chief advisors isn't correct. How would this have played out after the Okalahoma City bombing if McVeigh hadn't been immediately caught in a traffic stop?

Two examples of how emotional legislation can be misused are evident right here in California and Petaluma. We all thought the "three strikes" law was to keep violent felons (emphasis on violent) locked up. But we have seen a 50 year sentence given to a person who literally only stole cookies. Do you think that was the public's intention?

Right here in Petaluma, the recent incident of two youths trying to steal marijuana that resulted in a wounded officer and a suicide is another example. One of the charges against the second youth was "making terrorist threats". Does that seem appropriate? And if it does, what could the new military tribunal get involved in?

My second concern is, if we're in a war, are we combatants or advisors and geographically, what do we consider a war zone?

If we are at "war", and Administration spokesmen never fail to remind us that, "We are at war", then who or what differentiates between who is a prisoner-of-war (POW) and who is a war criminal? POW's have certain rights and will we honor those rights? Even more basic, we seem to be "at war" but we say it's the Afghans who are fighting and we're only assisting them, "It isn't our war". Either it's our war or it isn't.

If the continental U.S. is considered a war zone, then who can be considered a terrorist? Will a bomb joke in an airport now become not only a federal offense but also a terrorist threat?

I'm fearful this administration is willing to use any excuse that's available to create excessive power for the Executive branch of government.

One justification for the tribunals is that civil jurors could be intimidated. Does this mean that in any crime organization trial (John Gotti) jurors can't be used because they are at risk of mob retaliation?

Another justification is the need to keep intelligence gathering techniques secret. The military court could blank out any really sensitive intelligence techniques, but there's no need to keep anything else secret unless the whole process is something shameful.

The whole concept of SECRET trials is counter productive. Most significant, any conviction in secret is going to be considered in world opinion, especially the Muslim world, as the result of a kangaroo court. It would be used as a propaganda tool to make heroes or martyrs out of any person convicted.

If the process is basically fair, even though different from a civilian trial, what is gained by keeping it secret? Remember, this is supposed to follow the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that any of our servicemen would be tried under. ( It doesn't )

If there are to be tribunals, let them be open to media coverage with selected intelligence censorship as necessary. Let the public see what the government thinks is fair.



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