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One liberty at a time.

From the cages at Guantanamo to a jail cell in Brooklyn, the administration isn't just threatening the rights of a few detainees—it's undermining the very foundation of democracy.

By Anthony Lewis

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"It is a recurring theme in history that in times of war, armed conflict, or perceived national danger, even liberal democracies adopt measures infringing human rights in ways that are wholly disproportionate to the crisis."
- Lord Johan Steyn, lecture to the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, November 25, 2003

Britain's law lords, who make up the country's highest court, are by tradition a secluded lot, avoiding comments on matters outside of their court. But last November one of them, Lord Steyn, broke those bounds in a dramatic way. He gave a lecture condemning the U.S. government for keeping hundreds of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in what he called a "legal black hole"—unable to challenge their imprisonment before any court. Speaking, he said, as a lifelong admirer of American ideals of justice, he called the treatment of the men held at Guantanamo a "monstrous failure of justice."

It is not just for Guantanamo that the alarm bells of American liberty should be sounding. Civil liberties are more broadly in a perilous state, wounded in the historical pattern noted by Lord Steyn: repression in times of perceived national danger. In the name of fighting terrorism, President Bush and his administration have abruptly overridden rights protected by the Constitution and international law. Ideas foreign to American principles—detention without trial, denial of access to lawyers, years of interrogation in isolation—are now American practices.

The danger of what is happening is more profound than the denial of justice to some individuals. The Bush administration is really attacking a basic premise of the American system: that we have a government under law. It was a novel idea when James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the rest laid it down at the end of the 18th century, and ever since it has been a distinctive feature of our polity: Political leaders are subject to the law, responsible to legal constraints on their power as well as to the vote of the people. "A government of laws, and not of men," John Adams first said.

The administration's policy, in one instance after another, has been to avoid any accounting before the law. It has tried to prevent the prisoners it holds as possibly connected to terrorism, in Guantanamo and elsewhere, from testing in court whether in fact they have anything to do with terrorism. It has covered its actions in secrecy, which is the enemy of legal and political accountability. Aliens have been the most numerous victims of the administration's methods, but not the only ones. Oppressive tactics used against aliens have been directed against American citizens, too.

In the weeks after September 11, 2001, FBI agents arrested more than 1,000 aliens, most of them Muslims, on suspicion that they might have something to do with terrorism. Many were held for months without charges, in painful conditions. In the words of a New York Times legal writer, Adam Liptak, their treatment "inverted the foundation principles of the American legal system."

They were arrested essentially at random, without any probable cause to believe they had terror connections. They were treated as guilty until proved innocent—detained until a lengthy FBI process concluded that they "posed no danger to the United States." Many were held for months after judges ordered them released, or after they had agreed to leave the country because they had overstayed their visas or otherwise violated immigration rules. Some were subjected to abuse in prison, verbal and physical: At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, guards slammed detainees against the wall, hurt them by stepping on their leg chains, kept them in cells with fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day, and told them, "You're going to die here." Of the thousands detained, only two have been charged with a connection to terrorism.

One of the Bush administration's programs that has drawn widespread international criticism is the holding of alleged Taliban fighters and terrorists in prison cages at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There are more than 600 prisoners. The general impression is that they were almost all captured by U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan. But it is now clear that that is simply not true. Over the past six months, several dozen detainees have been sent home after being held for as long as two years, and none were charged with any offense.