Eagleton should withdraw criticism

Tuesday, December 18, 2001


By Jim Talent

ST. LOUIS -- President George W. Bush left no room for guessing when he issued an executive order providing for military commissions to try terrorists suspected of murdering thousands of innocent Americans. It was a clear signal to the terrorists: you will be brought to justice.

But some have attempted to use the executive order to second-guess the president and his administration, particularly Attorney General John Ashcroft. Most recently former U.S. Sen Tom Eagleton attacked the president and the attorney general in a column. He accused the administration of trying to "throw out the Bill of Rights."

I have a great deal of respect for Eagleton. He was my senator for 18 years. But I agree with the president and attorney general on this, and I am still a supporter of the Bill of Rights. It's time to set the record straight.

The terrorists who attacked America on Sept. 11 are not common criminals. They didn't rob a bank or steal a sweater from a department store. They killed thousands of American civilians in an act of war and terror. Chief Justice John Marshall said our Constitution is not a suicide pact. It gives the president every tool he reasonably needs to protect the security of our people, win the war and bring the terrorists to justice, including the option to use military commissions.

In plain terms, the executive order allows captured terrorists to be tried before military commissions rather than civilian courts, provided that (a) the terrorists are not American citizens, (b) the terrorists are members of al-Qaida (Osama bin Laden's organization) or have aided and abetted that organization, and (c) the defendants are afforded a full and fair trial.

The executive order is a commonsense measure to protect our people. He needs the option of military commissions, because trying terrorists in open civilian courts would risk the release of classified information and expose judges and jurors to retaliation from the terrorists.

These dangers are real. In 1998, terrorists from al-Qaida bombed American embassies in Africa and were tried in civilian court. That trial revealed to bin Laden that America was intercepting his satellite phone calls. He stopped using the satellite after that, depriving us of useful intelligence. And the judge from that case received 24-hour security because of threats to his life.

Civilians have no business taking the kinds of risks that are involved in bringing terrorists to justice. We are talking about the lives of real people being at stake. I would not want my son or one of my daughters on the jury that condemned bin Laden. They would be in danger for the rest of their lives, and there is no reason to subject them to that risk when the option of a military commission is available.

For all of these good, commonsense reasons, the Supreme Court held 58 years ago that there is no constitutional right to a civilian trial for those charged with making war against the United States. The court was unanimous, and it included several of the most noted civil libertarians in the court's history.

In short, the effect of Eagleton's position would be to create a new constitutional right for terrorists, a right which even our own servicemen and women don't enjoy. If an American soldier is charged with an offense, he is tried before a military court. Why should we extend to bin Laden a right we do not give our servicemen and women?

Everyone in Washington is talking about bipartisanship but engaging in precious little of it. The way to create bipartisanship is to be quick to concede at least the good faith of those who take contrary positions. The president and his attorney general are acting out of concern for the security of America. Their decisions are fully consistent with Supreme Court precedent and the practices of past administrations.

No one has to agree with the president's action, but in times of war responsible public figures should try to be distinctive without being divisive. I call on Eagleton to withdraw his comments, and I hope that liberals in Washington would readily concede that those of us who agree with the president and the attorney general support the Bill of Rights as much as they do.

Jim Talent represented Missouri's 2nd District in Congress from 1993 to 2000.

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