WASHINGTON - Bush administration lawyers rejected congressional suggestions yesterday that suspected al-Qaida and Taliban war criminals be prosecuted in the U.S. military justice system, saying that military courts provide protections for defendants that are unwarranted in the war on terrorism.
The lawyers said the government must be able to use evidence and testimony gathered through "coercion" and hearsay and does not want to provide captives with lawyers before interrogating them for intelligence purposes.
Key lawmakers have argued that last month's landmark Supreme Court ruling directs them to use the Uniform Code of Military Justice as the legal framework for new war crimes courts. The lawmakers said they could amend the code to address specific administration concerns.
But lawyers from the Defense and Justice departments told members of the House Armed Services Committee that such a plan was unworkable, urging lawmakers to retain the system put in place by President Bush four years ago, despite the Supreme Court's finding that it violated U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.
Daniel J. Dell'Orto, the Pentagon's principal deputy general counsel, said hundreds of changes to current military laws would be required if Congress insisted on using the UCMJ as the basis for new war crimes courts.
"That is a gutting of the manual for courts-martial and the Uniform Code of Military Justice," Dell'Orto said.
The lawyers' insistence that Congress re-adopt the administration's existing military commission system is the latest sign that - despite the Supreme Court ruling and the administration's acknowledgment Tuesday that the Geneva Conventions must be legally applied to all detainees held by the U.S. military - the White House is likely to be just as aggressive in asserting its authority over detainee policy as it has been in the past.
Indeed, the Bush administration has so far refused to say publicly whether its decision to apply the Geneva Conventions to military detainees also applies to those believed to be held by the CIA in undisclosed locations.
An order issued Tuesday by Gordon England, the deputy defense secretary, applied Geneva Convention protections only to detainees held by the military, who include 450 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and about 500 being held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
The high court ruling held that a Geneva provision dealing with fighters who are not formally part of a nation applied to al-Qaida. Legal experts said that that part of the Supreme Court ruling extends to the CIA's "ghost detainees," who may include Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
White House officials would not answer questions about whether the Geneva Conventions provision, known as Common Article 3, applied to CIA detainees. The CIA also declined to comment on the topic. Human rights groups estimate that there are more than two dozen such captives.
Hina Shamsi, a lawyer with Human Rights First, said such coverage could allow the CIA detainees to have visits from the Red Cross and communicate with family members - rights already granted to Guantanamo detainees.