Defense officials were expecting what they believed would be a big court victory
in the war on terrorism. But they were caught off-guard by this week's U.S. Supreme
Court rulings that terrorist suspects held by the military, both foreign nationals
and American, have the right to challenge their detention in the U.S. court system.
The Supreme Court rulings have been described by civil rights groups as a
defeat for the Bush administration and its assertion of sweeping powers to
indefinitely hold what it calls enemy combatants in the war on terror.
Since the decisions were handed down Monday, Pentagon officials have had
little to say other than to tell reporters the rulings are being reviewed by
defense department lawyers.
That is because the Pentagon was expecting an endorsement of administration
policies and was caught off-guard by the unfavorable rulings, which defense
officials now admit came as a complete surprise.
The officials' admissions are confirmed by an internal document, obtained
by VOA, which outlined a communications strategy to be followed by Pentagon
and other government spokesman in responding to the court. The document was
written last week and was based on the assumption that key cases would be decided
in favor of the Bush administration.
For example, in the cases brought by foreign-born Guantanamo detainees seeking
access to U.S. courts, the planning document anticipated a close five-to-four
decision but stated, quoting now, "we will treat any decision short of outright
rejection as a victory."
In fact, the Supreme Court ruled six-to-three against the administration,
declaring non-U.S. citizens held at the United States naval base at Guantanamo
Bay can appeal to federal courts to argue that they are being unlawfully held.
In the case of U.S.-born terrorist suspect Yaser Hamdi, held at a military
base in South Carolina, the administration's planning document also predicted
a favorable decision in what was termed "a clear-cut Prisoner of War case."
As it turned out, the justices ruled eight-to-one that Mr. Hamdi should get
an opportunity to rebut the government's case for detaining him before a neutral
party. Four court members would have released him, arguing his detention was
The communications planning document, prepared jointly by the Pentagon and
the Justice Department, only once mentions the possibility of decisions unfavorable
to the Bush administration.
In that case, it says the administration, as it put it, should "be prepared
to have supporters outside the Departments of Defense and Justice carry the
standard by engaging with the media to decry this miscarriage of justice."
In case of a positive decision, the document urged officials, quoting again,
to "ensure maximum media coverage to overcome those who will continue to criticize
the detention of enemy combatants.
So far, officials at both the Justice Department and the Pentagon, seeking
to put the best possible face on the rulings, have only noted the high court
affirmed the President's authority to detain enemy combatants in the war on