[JURIST] President George W. Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 [PDF text; S 3930 summary] Tuesday. The US Congress approved the bill [JURIST report] late last month after leaders of the House of Representatives decided to forego the process of reconciling slightly-divergent House and Senate versions, with the House instead adopting the Senate version of the legislation.
The military commissions bill [JURIST news archive] became necessary after the US Supreme Court ruled in June that the commissions, as initially constituted, lacked proper legal authorization [JURIST report]. The law provides statutory authorization for military commission trials for Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] and the Bush administration has promised to immediately take steps toward beginning prosecution [briefing transcript; AP report]. A senior state department official said last week that as many as 80 detainees could face trial by military commission [JURIST report].
Under the Military Commissions Act [CRS summary], the president is authorized to establish military commissions to try unlawful enemy combatants. The commissions are authorized to sentence defendants to death, and defendants are prevented from invoking the Geneva Conventions [ICRC materials] as a source of rights during commission proceedings. The law contains a highly-controversial provision stripping detainees of the right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal court and also allows hearsay evidence to be admitted during proceedings, so long as the presiding officer determines it to be reliable. The law addresses permissible interrogation methods, making US interrogators subject to only a limited range of "grave breaches" purporting to reflect the requirements of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and clarifies [JURIST report] what actions would subject interrogators to liability under the existing federal War Crimes Act [text; JURIST report].
A legal challenge to the law [JURIST report] has already been filed by a group of Afghan detainees who argue that Congress, by passing the bill, endangered the rights [CCR press release] of detainees. The habeas stripping provisions of the new law apply retroactively, and in order for the detainees to be successful, a judge will have to strike down the portion of the new law that precludes the challenges.
10:26 AM ET – Signing the Military Commissions Act, Bush called the law "one of the most important pieces of legislation in the War on Terror." In remarks [text] before signing the bill, Bush said:
The bill I'm about to sign also provides a way to deliver justice to the terrorists we have captured. In the months after 9/11, I authorized a system of military commissions to try foreign terrorists accused of war crimes. These commissions were similar to those used for trying enemy combatants in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War II. Yet the legality of the system I established was challenged in the court, and the Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions needed to be explicitly authorized by the United States Congress.
And so I asked Congress for that authority, and they have provided it. With the Military Commission Act, the legislative and executive branches have agreed on a system that meets our national security needs. These military commissions will provide a fair trial, in which the accused are presumed innocent, have access to an attorney, and can hear all the evidence against them. These military commissions are lawful, they are fair, and they are necessary.
When I sign this bill into law, we will use these commissions to bring justice to the men believed to have planned the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. We'll also seek to prosecute those believed responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 American sailors six years ago last week. We will seek to prosecute an operative believed to have been involved in the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 innocent people and wounded 5,000 more. With our actions, we will send a clear message to those who kill Americans: We will find you and we will bring you to justice.
In a fact sheet [text] highlighting key aspects of the Act, the White House noted that the law will allow the administration "to prosecute captured terrorists for war crimes through full and fair trials" and, referring to the Act's interrogation provisions, "will preserve the tools needed to help save American lives." The White House stressed that the law "Provides legal protections that ensure our military and intelligence personnel will not have to fear lawsuits filed by terrorists simply for doing their jobs; Spells out specific, recognizable offenses that would be considered crimes in the handling of detainees – so that our men and women who question captured terrorists can perform their duties to the fullest extent of the law; and Complies with both the spirit and the letter of our international obligations."