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Habeas corpus right is too often abused

Reading Eagle
January 09, 2008

The Issue: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once urged President Truman to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and jail 12,000 people Hoover suspected of being disloyal.

Our Opinion: Our right to habeas corpus often has been one of the first casualties in uncertain times.

There was a time, not so many decades ago, when J. Edgar Hoover was considered second only to Superman as a defender of truth, justice and the American way.

That image became tarnished during the late 1960s when the public began learning that Hoover and his FBI agents had been spying on Vietnam War protesters, civil rights activists and even journalists who dared to question the government's actions.

Hoover actually had been spying on Americans for many years and by 1950 he had compiled a list of 12,000 people he considered disloyal to their country.

In a recently declassified letter sent by Hoover to the White House in 1950, shortly after Communist forces attacked U.S. troops in Korea, the FBI director urged President Truman to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and jail everyone on the list.

Habeas corpus is a legal action with which a person who has been arrested can challenge his detention.

The U.S. Constitution allows the suspension of habeas corpus only in cases of rebellion and invasion when the public's safety is jeopardized.

However Hoover apparently was not above ignoring the Constitution. In the letter he suggested the suspension of habeas corpus should be triggered by the mere threat of an invasion or by an attack on U.S. troops in a territory legally held by the United States, an obvious reference to Korea, which had been partitioned after World War II in much the same way Germany had been.

The arrests were not to be done in secret. In fact Hoover wanted Truman to announce to the nation that the detentions were necessary to protect the country from treason, espionage and sabotage.

Those arrested eventually would have been given a hearing before a panel consisting of a judge and two citizens, according to Hoover's plan. But the hearing would not be bound by the rules of evidence.

Truman wisely ignored Hoover's letter.

What makes the 58-year-old letter interesting is how it seems to presage the current controversy concerning habeas corpus.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush issued an order that allowed suspected terrorists to be held indefinitely without charges being filed against them.

In 2006 Congress, at Bush's urging, passed a law denying habeas corpus to the hundreds of detainees being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Those detainees are designated as unlawful enemy combatants. That law is being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Habeas corpus is often one of the first casualties in uncertain times. At the beginning of the Civil War President Lincoln suspended the right and jailed thousands of Confederate sympathizers. During World War II thousands of Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps.

The Supreme Court later ruled Lincoln's actions unconstitutional noting that the judicial system was still functioning and any question of treason could have been handled by the courts.

The same argument applies now. There is no question that the terrorists struck a severe blow against the United States. But as devastating as it was, the attack did not disrupt our judicial system.

When the Twin Towers were attacked the first time in 1993, the terrorists who were responsible were caught, tried and convicted. They still are in prison. The court system worked.

Habeas corpus is too precious a right to be summarily suspended when things get a bit sticky, no matter how convenient it might be.

Posted by readingeagle at January 9, 2008 01:00 AM

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