High Court To Review Terror Trials

Suspected Taliban and al-Qaida detainees sit in a holding area at Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility in this Jan. 11, 2002, file photo.
AP (file)
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider a challenge to the Bush administration's military tribunals for foreign terror suspects, a major test of the government's wartime powers and a case presenting the first conflict for new Chief Justice John Roberts.

The case was brought by Osama bin Laden's driver, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss, but raises a much bigger question: Just what rights do those being held indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay have?

This case also puts the new chief justice in an awkward spot because it is one of his rulings the Supreme Court is going to consider. Roberts, when he was an appeals court judge, took part in the decision to uphold the Bush administration's setup of military tribunals to judge those at Guantanamo.

It is an appeal of that ruling that the high court on which he now sits has decided to hear. Lawyers for Salim Ahmed Hamdan were expected to ask Roberts to participate in the case, to avoid a 4-4 tie.

"This is a big step by the U.S. Supreme Court," CBSNews.com legal analyst Andrew Cohen said, "because what the court is saying by taking this case is that it has some questions about the U.S. policy of trying these detainees in Guantanamo Bay and whether that practice violates either international law or the Constitution. So it is indeed a major test for the administration challenged in the courts."

The court's intervention was a surprise. In 2004 justices took the first round of cases stemming from the government's war on terrorism. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring, wrote in one case that "a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

The announcement of the court's move came shortly after President Bush declared anew that his administration does not torture suspects.

The announcement came as President Bush said that while the U.S. will "aggressively" pursue and interrogate terror suspects, U.S. personnel do not engage in torture.

"Any activity we conduct is within the law. We do not torture," he told a news conference in Panama.

Mr. Bush did not specifically answer a reporter's question about reports of CIA prisoner camps in Europe for terror suspects, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. The administration is trying to get Congress to exempt the CIA from legislation banning the use of torture.

Hamdan's case brought a new issue to the court — the rights of foreigners who have been charged and face a military trial in a type of proceeding resurrected from World War II. Trials of Hamdan and three other low-level suspects were interrupted last fall when a judge in Washington said the proper process had not been followed.

The men are among about 500 foreigners, many swept up in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, who have been held at the U.S. military prison in Cuba. The government had planned to proceed with a military trial for another foreigner, Australian David M. Hicks, with a pretrial hearing later this month, but that will likely be stalled now.