Although discarding the "enemy combatant" label makes for great political soundbite, at present, it does not materially alter the government's treatment of Al Qaeda members and other terrorism suspects, nor has it changed the government's legal position in lawsuits brought by former detainees alleging maltreatment by the government.
The government described its rhetorical shift in a formal statement and in a legal brief submitted in opposition to a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld and other officials by former detainees. The plaintiffs allege that they were tortured and deprived of religious freedom. DOJ argues that the individuals have no enforceable rights against the United States and that even if they had such rights, the defendants are immune from liability.
The government will no longer claim broad authority over "enemy combatants," but will instead use a functional test to determine whether it can indefinitely detain suspects and deprive them of rights that they might otherwise possess. A closer look at the criteria, however, shows very little difference between the "new" standard and the old one used by the Bush administration.
The SCOTUS blog has the details:
Here is how [the Bush] Administration defined ["enemy combatant"]: "At a minimum, the President’s power to detain includes the ability to detain as enemy combatant those individuals who were part of, or supporting, forces engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners and allies. This includes individuals who were part of or directly supporting Taliban, al-Qaida, or associated forces, that are engaged in hostilities against the United States, its coalition partners or allies. This also includes any persons who have committed a belligerent act or supported hostilities in aid of enemy forces."SCOTUS also sets forth out the "differences" between Bush and Obama on this issue:
Here is the definition of detention authority, without the label "enemy combatant," that the Obama Administration outlined Friday: "The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the united States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces."
First, the new version requires proof of “substantial” support of Taliban orThe Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents plaintiffs in the litigation, does not mince words. CCR argues that DOJ has:
Al-Qaeda forces, while the former version required proof of “direct” support of such forces.
Second, the new version requires proof of “substantial” support of forces (other than Taliban or Al-Qaeda) engaged in hostilities against the U.S. and its coalition partners, while the former version only required “support.”
And, third, the new version applies to a person who “directly” supported hositilities to aid enemy armed forces, while the former version only required “support” of such hostilities, and did not include the word “armed” as to enemy forces who had been supported.
[A]dopted almost the same standard the Bush administration used to detain peopleThis sounds like the "extraordinary rendition"/"rendition" debate.
without charge – with one change, the addition of the word “substantially”
before the word “supported.” This is really a case of old wine in new bottles.
PS: Bush also advanced arguments based on the law of war and the AUMF. Also, it does not appear that DOJ rejects Bush's argument that Article II confers detention authority upon the President; instead, it seems that it has simply declined to assert this argument.