In December 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the federal government’s use of military commissions to try alleged terrorists. U.S. News & World Report says that behind the scenes, Ashcroft has been arguing against the exclusive use of commissions at the expense of the courts. He has expressed exasperation at how long it has taken the Pentagon to bring cases to the commissions. Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the government’s indefinite detention without counsel of foreigners and American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants.” Officials gave U.S. News a glimpse into the infighting over the administration’s policies. Two departments–Justice and Defense–have differing priorities, and Ashcroft is growing more impatient with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Sources say Rumsfeld never considered tribunals a top priority. “Rumsfeld sees his job as dealing out death, not legal sentences,” says former White House associate counsel Bradford Berenson. “My impression is all these questions strike him as sissy stuff.”
The biggest disagreements have involved U.S. citizens Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi, who were classified as “unlawful enemy combatants,” held in military brigs, and until recently denied access to counsel. Rumsfeld acted under military policy on battlefield detainees; Ashcroft said the pair should have a chance to challenge their detentions in civilian courts. With the Supreme Court cases looming, the issue of military commissions will pop back into public consciousness.